January 18, 2023

Article at Medium

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An Old Man’s Homage to Taco Bell

Orrin Onken
Photo by PJ Gal-Szabo on Unsplash

I suffer a mild form of seasonal affective disorder, aptly shortened to SAD. When the Oregon winter rain has been falling for three straight weeks and I no longer remember what the sun looks like, I ingest chemicals to lift my mood. Thirty years ago I would have dropped in to the local dive bar, or rolled myself a doobie. Those options are closed to me these days, so I go to my only remaining option for a mood-lifting pick-me-up: Taco Bell.

I love fast food. I always have. The nutrition and health folks in my life have convinced me not to eat it often, but they will never convince me to stop loving it. Although it comes in a thousand different forms, all fast food tastes pretty much the same. That taste is what makes it fast food. Whether it be burgers, tacos, subs, fried chicken or something not yet invented, it is instantly recognizable as fast food, and I love it.

One fast food purveyor stands above them all. The ground zero, the mother-ship, the home-away-from-home of fast food has been, is, and always will be, for me, Taco Bell.

My father was not a happy man. He was a midwestern beef-and-potatoes guy who grew up in a time and place where people could not afford restaurants, and although his economic status eventually improved, he never became comfortable eating out. One of the few times I remember him being happy was when he explained to my little sister and me we were going to drive for an hour and a half to a place outside of Rapid City, South Dakota, where a new restaurant was selling hamburgers for fifteen cents each. I don’t remember the burgers we ate in the car that day, but I remember how happy he was.

My father loved McDonalds until the day he died, but his fast food was his, not mine. A few years later, we lived in a different place. There, on the way to McDonalds, or, if we were flush, to A & W, we would pass the new kid in town, Taco Bell. It called to me. It was mysterious, foreign, and exotic. I knew my father would never take me to a place that sold unfamiliar food. I never asked. But when I earned a driver's license and was let loose on the roads alone, my very first trip was to Taco Bell. I ordered one of each of the five items on the menu and ate them alone out front at a round cement table under a fake umbrella. And I was happy. Just like my father had been that day at McDonalds.

Taco Bell was not easy to love. I matured. I learned that the food wasn’t exotic or even Mexican. It had been invented in an American corporate kitchen for people like me. It was unhealthy and, as the years passed, it wasn’t even cheap anymore.

I moved out of my parents' house to college and then to a job and a house of my own. With money in my pocket, I experienced fine dining, fresh local foods, cuisines from around the world, and real Mexican food. I loved all of those things. I wanted to love all those things and love Taco Bell too, but my friends said that I couldn’t do that. I had to choose. So I turned against Taco Bell. I mocked it. I belittled the food and the people who prepared it. I made it the butt of jokes. If my friends were too good for Taco Bell, then so was I.

But I couldn’t quit her.

In middle age, I wandered the nooks and crannies of the culinary world. I ate whole food, raw food, farm-fresh food, aged food, ethnic food, bar food, food-truck food, hospital food, carnival food and food from beneath the heat lamps at gas stations. I ate caviar, foie gras, truffles, steak tartare, and pimento cheese. I ate in white tablecloth restaurants where the chef came out to chat at the end of the meal and at street stands where the cook spoke no English at all. I learned to cook myself and today in my kitchen I grill, griddle, smoke, sous vide, saute, stir-fry, braise, bake, and ferment. I have eaten fast food at Burger King, KFC, Wendy’s, Arby’s, Popeye’s, Skippers, Subway, Chick-fil-A, and even Applebee’s. In the world of Mexican themed fast food, I’ve eaten at Taco Time, Taco Del Mar, Del Taco, Taco John’s, Chipotle, Baja Fresh and Machismo Mouse.

It was all good, and I don’t regret a single meal. Not even the ones at Applebee’s.

But when life is heavy, and it seems like the rain will never end, and I am by myself behind the wheel of my car, I go to Taco Bell and eat two crunchy taco supremes alone at a table. For that few minutes, everything is okay.

In adulthood, I made my living as a lawyer. I had an image to maintain. I wore expensive ties and drove a BMW. There were out-of-town trials that left me alone and exhausted in unfamiliar towns. If business required that I eat with clients or other lawyers, my assistant would have made reservations at a quaint bistro with the perfect mix of local color and high-end food. But sometimes there was no one to impress. I was just alone and tired. On those trips, I’d leave the courthouse and go directly to Taco Bell where I’d eat at one of the tables in my thousand dollar court suit. Unwrapping my taco supreme — made supreme by a dollop of sour cream — the case and the suit and the lawyers vanished. I was sixteen again, and happy.

I am retired now. My court suits hang in the closet unused.

I last went to Taco Bell in 2023 on Martin Luther King’s birthday. Schools were closed, so the teenagers who ordinarily haunted the place at lunch were home. I ordered my two crunchy taco supremes. As I looked around the small dining area for a seat, I noticed there were no young people. Everyone was my age or older. Some were couples, married couples, eating their small lunches in silence. Most were men. Old men. Like me. Eating alone.

For decades, I have been ashamed of my trips to Taco Bell. If I spoke of them at all, I made fun of them, self-deprecatingly treating them as an old-man’s eccentricity. On my recent trip, however, I saw that although I may eat alone, I am not alone. Each of the other old men in that dining area got there by his own route, on roads different from mine, but whatever our stories, we all ended up in the same place. Eating together.

As I open my tacos and squirt the sauce on my food from the little packet just the way I like it, I feel the familiar sense of ease and comfort wash over me. My trips to Taco Bell were always good, but realizing I’m not the only one, makes them even better.