Apologies, all, for the long silence. The fall semester has begun, and the professorial life (at NYU, where I teach) has swallowed me headfirst, taking the usual Great White-sized bite out of my time at the writing desk. Nothing but tumbleweeds blowing down the desolate main street of this blog, the batwing doors of the saloon making a lonely creaking in the furnace-blast wind… I’m thinking of re-naming this The Spahn Ranch Times.
In any event, an announcement: Salon just posted my personal essay “Remembrance of Tacos Past,” a cultural critique-cum-social history of Taco Bell that asks the question clouding the American Mind: How can a partial-birth monstrosity like Taco Bell’s Crunchwrap Supreme survive in a country flooded by Mexican immigrants, where the Real Thing (authentic Mexican food) is easier and easier to find, at least in most big cities?
I’m especially happy with this essay—the latest in a series I’ve been writing about what I pretentiously call the “cultural psyche” of Southern California—because it comes closer than anything I’ve written to realizing my vision of a polymorphously perverse cultural criticism that seamlessly stitches together journalism and critical theory, high style and lowbrow subject matter, snark-monkey humor and Deep Thoughts, and social history refracted (where appropriate) through the prism of personal experience.
It’s a social history of white Californians’ projection, onto Mexican food, of their nativist phobias about “dirty, greasy” Mexicans. It’s also a cultural critique of Taco Bell’s deracination of south-of-the-border cuisine, and of the fraught racial subtext of the company’s glib use of Mexicanismo (Mexican-ness) in the mission-style architecture of its restaurants and in TV spots featuring a talking Chihuahua with a Speedy Gonzalez accent. Finally, it’s a first-person, New Journalism-style meditation on the cultural politics of my obsessive quest, as an expatriate Southern Californian living in New York, for authentic Mexican food—a search that looks, at first glance, like Proustian time travel back to the San Diego borderlands of my youth but on closer examination turns out to be one white guy’s problematic use of the taco as a metonym for a mythic Mexico whose use value, in symbolic terms, is that it is everything that middle-class Anglo culture is not.
For this essay, I worked the Proustian beat, dredging up my memories of eating, in the mid-’60s, at the first Taco Bell that opened in our San Diego suburb of Chula Vista. I reflected on the curious cultural alchemy that transmuted Mexican food, in my white, middle-class mind, into my food—the soul food of SoCal surfer-dude culture, the hybrid consciousness of the U.S.-Mexico borderlands wrapped up in a fried tortilla.
Here’s a preview:
I’m having a senor moment. Dinner tonight is the unthinkable: a Taco Bell Original Taco and Burrito Supreme, abominations that haven’t profaned this chowhound’s palate since I was a kid in Southern California, birthplace of fast food. I’m committing this foodie felony partly because I’m a la recherche du whatever: the goldenrod-and-avocado-colored memories of my ’60s-’70s youth, when dinner out, more often than not, meant Taco Bell.
Growing up white and middle-class in San Diego in those days meant that “cultural hybridity,” as the postmodernists like to call it, was my birthright: Mexicans might have been “wetbacks” and “beaners,” but our shared historical (sometimes literal) genes, reaffirmed on school trips to the region’s Spanish missions, meant that Mexican food was “our” food.