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Last week, for Marker, I wrote about how Taco Bell has slowly but surely amassed a fan base that now includes vegans, vegetarians, and Gen-Z flexitarians — in addition to its core audience of potheads with nothing to lose (i.e. me).
In spite of the long-standing cult status of Mexican Pizza among South Asian communities in the U.S. with dietary restrictions (here’s one beautiful homage to that), Taco Bell’s veg-friendly rep didn’t happen right away. In fact, that Taco Bell’s devastating 2006 E.coli outbreak was linked to its romaine shows how much things have changed. From the piece:
In some ways, it started back in 2015, when Taco Bell became the first national chain to offer menu items certified by the American Vegetarian Association. “We sell more than 350 million vegetarian menu items each year,” then-CEO Brian Niccol said at the time, “but until now [we] haven’t been vocal about it.” In 2019, a year after it removed artificial colors and flavors from its core menu, the company launched a stand-alone vegetarian menu section, earning it more attention in lifestyle circles. Nowadays, even PETA touts the bounty of vegetarian and vegan options at Taco Bell.
One fact that blew my mind is that the company (somewhat recently) said that the second most-ordered menu item is a bean burrito, which is vegan, vegetarian, and fortifying with the right hot sauce. In the piece, I also get into how last month Taco Bell returned potatoes to the menu after a huge uproar (especially from its meat-eschewing faithful) erupted last summer when they were removed. Between that, the veg menu, and the reveal that Taco Bell is launching a new plant-based protein with Beyond Meat this year, are we looking at — dare I say it — a slightly progressive fast-food institution?
Now now now, before you hit delete or cancel me, I’m NOT SAYING fast food is #actuallygood or wholly a bastion of rectitude. But one of my eternal arguments is that fast food gives us a way to see our complicated selves, especially as we either change and adapt or stubbornly stand still. That can mean ditching styrofoam, swearing off deforestation, embracing ghost peppers or whatever, paying or not paying better wages, putting plant-based burgers in peoples’ maws for the first time, moving in and out of city centers, or generally giving people more ways to eat meatless.
For me, different versions of this conversation have come up in the few last weeks. Last month, I had probably the best and most substantive talk about fast food ever on the Special Sauce podcast with Dr. Marcia Chatelain and host Ed Levine. Dr. Chatelain’s book Franchise is about how, through an unlikely (and ultimately cynical) partnership between President Richard Nixon, fast-food companies, and civil rights leaders, fast food emerged as an avenue for Black capitalism and economic opportunity in the wake of the Kerner Report and the riots that followed MLK’s assassination in cities around the U.S. In it, we talk about how and where our books overlap and diverge and the allure of fast food in general as well as the wild and varied roles it plays in American society.
A few days later, I got to participate in a talk on Twitter Spaces with Bill Oakley, the former Simpsons head writer and current fast-food master curator, and Mike Haracz, the former corporate chef at McDonald’s. One topic we got into was the purchasing power of a place like McDonald’s and the effects it can have. It obviously manifests in a ton of ways, but here are two:
- Haracz explained that if a company like McDonald’s hypothetically decided to put an item with blueberries on the menu, they’d have to plan it 2–3 years in advance because, otherwise, it would decimate the world’s supply of blueberries. That’s how big they are.
- We also got into one of my other favorite fast-food stats, which is that McDonald’s uses almost five percent(!!!) of the eggs produced in the United States. That means that when McDonald’s makes the decision to use cage-free eggs in its Egg McMuffins (which it has), it pushes the entire food system to do the same.
All this leads back to one more opportunity for me to drop yet another name in this post. While writing Drive-Thru Dreams, I interviewed Michael Pollan, who has been on a quest to get us to cook and eat better for decades now. As we talked fast food and the greater good, he credited food activists and public intellectuals for creating a movement that managed to extract new, ostensibly beneficial concessions from fast-food companies. In the same conversation, he also explained that once during a talk, he asked the audience how they would feel if McDonald’s suddenly went totally organic, stopped using corn syrup in their food and sodas, and made their fries healthier. Apparently, everyone hated the idea.