Glen W. Bell Jr. died Jan. 16 at age 86, leaving behind a food legacy that rivals any in American restaurant history. Bell told the trade magazine Restaurant News in 2008, "I always smile when I hear people say that they never had a taco until Taco Bell came to town.” While Oklahoma City native Rick Bayless has worked tirelessly to reverse the effect Bell had on Mexican cuisine, Bell’s version of the taco is worthy to stand on its own merits. The ex-Marine couldn’t have foreseen what effect his decision to supplement his burger and hot dog drive-in in San Bernardino, Calif., would have on punch lines, Chihuahuas and the eating habits of early morning bar castaways. In 1951, Bell’s drive-in competed with a litter of newfangled drive-ins in California’s Inland Empire, not far from one owned by Dick and Mac McDonald, founders of what became the McDonald’s food empire. Seeking something to set apart his drive-in from the competition, Bell was intrigued by the tacos peddled by local Hispanic entrepreneurs. Crumbled ground beef with hot sauce, shredded lettuce and cheese was perfect. But locals prepared tacos on a soft corn tortilla then fried them lightly with the ingredients inside, a toothpick at the top holding it all together. Too slow. New York restaurateur Juvenico Maldonado had just received his patent for a device that held tortillas in a U-shape while they were fried. A molded, prefried shell could be stuffed and sent along much more quickly. So, Bell hired a chicken-coop maker to engineer him a wire fryer. Bell recalled the first taco, which he sold for 19 cents, in "Taco Titan: The Glen Bell Story” by Debra Lee Baldwin (Bookworld Services, 1999): "He was dressed in a suit, and as he bit into the taco, the juice ran down his sleeve and dripped on his tie. I thought, ‘Uh-oh, we’ve lost this one.’ But he came back, amazingly enough, and said, ‘That was good. Gimme another.’” Burgers and dogs were out; tacos were in. Several partnerships later, Bell invested $4,000 in his first Taco Bell in Downey, Calif., in 1962. I met Bell’s tacos in Chula Vista, Calif., about 1974. For me and other 6-year-olds from that era, McDonald’s was the standard-bearer for our attention with its clown mascot, Hamburglar and Mayor McCheese beckoning us into their playgrounds of the bizarre. Then came Burger King, pre-disturbing plastic-headed despot, and Jack-in-the-Box, whose plastic-headed chief executive was still merely a clown to whom you spoke in the drive-through. Tacos made mascots and playgrounds seem like folly. The flavor went to a place in my soul that still stirs. My flavor profile was born: garlic, chile, tomato, tortilla, onion, beef and, most importantly, crunch. I was hooked. But amid the disco age, taco prices went the way of fuel prices, reaching almost $1. My notoriously "thrifty” father snarled, "There couldn’t be more than 10 cents’ worth of food in that cotton-pickin’ shell!” Taco Bell had been flagged by the Bank of George Cathey. While I can’t say with certainty that my nightly prayers included a request for fiduciary relief, the Bank of George did ease sanctions when PepsiCo paid Bell $125 million for Taco Bell and immediately lowered prices. Alas, my enthusiasm was short-lived. These cheaper tacos were just that. Not knowing that the company had been sold, I blamed myself for not liking them. Surely, Taco Bell had not changed its recipe. It had to be me. Puberty? But the only thing I knew less about than puberty was free-market economics. Pretty soon, the little brick, open-air Taco Bells got face-lifts. No more concrete picnic tables. No more picture menus with phonetic pronunciations for each item: tah-co, en-chi-ree-to, boo-ree-to, etc. Nevertheless, my taco jonesing wasn’t curbed, so I turned to Mom. With specialties such as chicken curry, corn bread with pinto beans and chowchow, Company Casserole, a succession of chicken recipes from soup cans, and regional Italian and Chinese cuisine from boxes, Mom declined. "Learn to make them yourself if you like them so much,” was her advice. Almost 3½ decades later, one bite of a homemade crunchy taco inspires a sense of calm that comes only from blissfully ignorant youth. When given the chance, I will choose authentic Mexican-style tacos over crunchy versions every time. But I can’t deny that little piece of my palate that will always belong to the gringo taco. If your first love and the love of your life can live with you in harmony, paradise is found. I call it taco night.
On the Food Dude blogHow to make your own chili powder.