Thursday, January 21, 2010

Taco Hell

Yes, there was a Bell in Taco Bell. I didn't know that until I read that Taco Bell founder Glenn W. Bell, Jr. died this week.

His New York Times obituary all but credits him with the invention of the stiff taco shell, that wonder of processed food that tastes like corn-flavored cardboard, but holds up to chicken, vegies, cheese and salsa. According to the story, Bell decided to pre-fry his tortillas into crispy shells because the traditional soft version was too messy. The rest is history.

I'm not sure whether his invention is good or bad. I'm not a big Mexican food fan (as opposed to my wife who lives south-of-the border cuisine), so I'm not an expert. But I definitely prefer the soft tacos, as does my wife. Much more flavorful, and I hate the way the crispy ones shatter with the first bite.

It struck me how similar Bell's story is similar to those of other fast food pioneers. A veteran and a man of humble origins, he started out in the early 1950s in southern California just down the street from two brothers named McDonald's. He worked like a slave, eventually building a successful business and then sold out to a large corporation. He reminded me of Carl's Jr. founder Carl Karcher who is profiled in "Fast Food Nation," Dave Thomas of Wendy's and Colonel Sanders. Their stories are all very similar.

I'm guessing that in the beginning, Taco Bell was pretty good, as were most fast food places at their inception. Simple food done well.

I remember a Kentucky Fried Chicken opening near my house in the late 1960s. It was just a stand like a Dairy Queen: no indoor seating, just a kitchen and counter. I still remember the line snaking the length of the parking lot. I remember trying it for the first time. It was delicious. Then over the years after it was sold to a big company, the food got worse and worse until the Colonel himself proclaimed that the mashed potato and gravy tasted like wallpaper paste.

Whether Taco Bell followed the same pattern I don't know. I avoid Taco Hell like the plague. Even when I ate fast food, I couldn't stand it.

Bell's legacy? Hard taco shells and crappy food. At least he got rich.

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