If you ever meet my whole family in person, you’ll quickly discover two things about us. First, our kids never shut up. Like, ever. Second, we have a loyalty to Taco Bell that would make Wesley’s love for Buttercup seem amateurish. Now, you might think, “Sure, everyone has a guilty pleasure fast food joint. So what’s the deal?”
The deal is I don’t think you understand just how much we love Taco Bell. We treasure T-Bell to the exclusion of any and all other restaurants. At the moment, we live in the heart of one of the greatest cities in the U.S. for Tex-Mex, and yet we would still choose a cheesy gordita crunch any day. My wife can tell you the ingredient list for any item on the menu. She can rattle off recipe changes from over the years, how portions grew or shrunk, and when certain items simply stopped being good.
Most people look at us like we’re joking when we eulogize Taco Bell. And when they find out we’re not, they’ll either sneer in mild disgust or change the subject. I used to think it was because people thought the idea of Taco Bell itself was strange. But it’s not that.
I’m beginning to see that our values make no sense to them.
I tweet a lot about the urban/rural divide. And I tweet a lot about Taco Bell. Truth be told, I’m a very rural boy who’s somehow managed to survive incognito in some of the biggest urban and suburban areas in the country. I spent four and a half years living just blocks from Chicago’s Michigan Avenue only to go spend another decade in the suburban behemoth that is the DFW metroplex.
And in my time here I’ve learned that in Dallas you don’t go to Taco Bell to eat. Not really, any way. You go to Taco Bell because you have five minutes between meetings and can’t afford to wait in Chick-fil-A’s drive-thru. But you don’t do it to really eat.
If you want to eat, you park yourself at Papa Lopez, Chiloso, or Blue Mesa. I can anticipate nearly word-for-word the response of any Dallas-ite when they hear for the first time that my family just wants Taco Bell. It usually involves the phrases “real Tex-Mex” and a promise that their prefered place is “actually pretty cheap.”
And sure—there are much better restaurants out there. But only if your only goal is to experience that act of eating food that tickles your taste buds. My wife and I don’t go to Taco Bell to eat. We go to Taco Bell because it’s our place. When we were poor grad students, Taco Bell offered us a cheap way to go on a date. To this day my family of five can (and does) eat for less than ten bucks.
But more than that, it continues to offer us things no “real” restaurant can. We can talk for hours without interruption. My kids can dance to music they’ve only ever heard on Dancing with the Stars and it bothers no one. And we’ve never had the mood ruined by a tequila-tinted tantrum about Tiffany’s latest insta post.
My wife and I have done a lot of life (as the small groups enthusiasts say) at Taco Bell. We picked every one of our baby names while sipping Baja Blast. We’ve made career calls while cracking packets of Fire sauce. We’ve wept over dying family while poking at nachos with a spork. The eating never really mattered. Taco Bell is a capital-P place for us. We’ve packed that chain restaurant so full of our lives that it’s family now.
If I try to explain that, however, my foodie acquaintances inevitably begin raising their objections—that you can do all that and still eat better food. That there’s this great dive over in such-and-such a place that’s super cheap and it’s perfect for families and it has the best tacos that taste like Mexico and—
Except not. That’s not the point. The eating doesn’t matter. What we value about Taco Bell is place, not experience. And that, I’ve discovered, is exactly why we don’t fit in with city folk. In the city, you simply don’t do life in fast food restaurants.
It’s different out among the corn and the cows. When you live in a rural village (and I mean a literal, that’s-the-legal-designation-on-the-map village), your choices in food tend to skew toward the limited side of things. Incomes aren’t high, so the options aren’t expensive. Well, that’s not exactly true. Usually there’s one expensive place where the wait staff know pretty much everyone they serve is splurging to commemorate some anniversary. (Though truth be told, we still go to Taco Bell even for anniversaries.)
The food you eat in a rural world isn’t an experience worth chasing. It’s simply an excuse to be with people. Because what matters isn’t the quality of the taco but the people eating them with you. What matters is the sheer physicality of life—the noise of both big and little humans in your home. The decadence of food made with whole sticks of butter in a skillet seasoned to perfection generations ago that’s as ugly as it is tasty. (Just ‘cause the eating doesn’t matter doesn’t mean rural people don’t know how to eat.)
When you live life in small, simple spaces, what matters aren’t the experiences that happen to you but the ones you create. No one I grew up with needed a buffet of restaurants in order to find meaning in their lives. They ate at home with the same-old food and the same-old people. And after church on Sunday, the congregation would descend on Burger King, but only because Taco Bell was a few too many miles away. Had you pointed out that the local mall had nicer eating establishments, they’d have shrugged and gone back to their Whoppers.
But here in Dallas, when our city-lifer friends stare at my wife and me wondering what kind of sane human beings would love Taco Bell the way we do, I’ve come to realize it’s because they don’t see the complex values behind it all.
Underneath it all, we value the people in the plastic booth, not the activity of eating. We value the place where we named our kids, not the experience of crunching into Doritos Locos tacos. And it’s that set of values that is prompting us to uproot our family and move across the country. We’re going to leave the city once and for all and go find our people and place again. We’re going to find a village with a Taco Bell and fill it with memories and relationships and call it home. And that’ll be good enough for us.
And for those who scratch their heads and call us eccentric (and they do call us eccentric), I would love for them to see that the eating doesn’t matter. Sometimes, people simply value different things. And that’s okay. Rural people, rural life, and rural culture leapt into the spotlight a few years ago. And since, a lot of words have flown around as mainly urban people attempt to understand the rural denizens of America. But more often than not, it comes off as if small-town people are some kind of bearded woman in a sideshow. I know the feeling, because it happens every time I mention Taco Bell.
So if there’s anything that this country boy can offer to city folk, it’s simply this: “Why does the bearded woman have a beard” is the wrong question. Most rural people couldn’t tell you why. The better question—maybe the best question—is who. “Who is that woman behind the beard?”
Every one of us as human beings wants to be known. Sometimes we just have less common ground to start that knowing. And that’s okay. But if you genuinely want to know the person behind the beard, you simply have to ask. And maybe try the Nacho Fries. They’re fantastic.
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