Nachos and Cinnamon Twists
We were never a fast food family. We were the kind of family that cooked together and then shared a table and our days. A family that was big enough that dinner conversation was mostly, “Can you pass the, can you pass the, can you pass the.” And then we quieted into chewing. Dinners were long and thoughtful and slow—nothing fast about them.
Sometimes though, on the road or even between school and violin lessons or on the rare occasions our parents went out, we would have Taco Bell. I remember the fluorescent orange glow of nacho cheese and the white-salt sharpness of the chips. The sugar-styrofoam delight of cinnamon twists. My siblings and I, digging into the paper bag like a family of raccoons in a trash can.
Disgust and fond memories are inseparable when I think about Taco Bell—not unlike cheese melted onto a tortilla. Oozing together. Greased with salt and regret. As a child, I was a tiny blue slip of a girl. I was in and out of the hospital to repair my heart. I almost always refused the hospital food. The doctors would say, she has to start eating before we can release her. My mother said, I promise she’ll eat when she gets home. My pickiness with food has always shapeshifted. I am learning to redefine healthy and unhealthy. Now, my partner loves tacos and Taco Bell and I just love tacos. Our fingers squeeze limes. Our fingers fold the tortilla. Our fingers stuff our smiles. I am careful. He is untethered. Last summer, I had a taco that had crispy cheese laced over the tortilla and filled with fried-to-gold potatoes—reminding me of the spicy potato soft taco at Taco Bell. I am rarely disappointed in a taco—and as a very picky vegetarian dating a not-picky, not-vegetarian, it is important to have a meal that we can both always count on. Tacos are often nourishing peace-keepers of our home.
Once, my sister’s best friend told me that eating Taco Bell’s beef would cause you to have blackheads. I was around eight at the time and I had no idea what blackheads were, but the way she described it, I probably should never eat Taco Bell again or else tiny monsters would crawl out of my pores. Now, I look at my skin in the mirror, the flecks of brown burrows of oil and think about unwrapping a Taco Bell beef burrito even though I haven’t eaten meat in twenty-one years and Taco Bell in about eight years. I wonder if that is where I first started connecting “healthy” food to clean, “trash” food to dirt. Sometimes, now, when I eat fried food, I want to take a shower—as if I can feel the oil seeping from my pores, bubbling hot. I want to cry to rid myself of this salt.
The 7-layer burrito, by design, was made to keep you eating. On the outside, the burrito is hole and smooth—yet barely holding together. The perfect ratio of all seven lays lies somewhere in the midriff of the burrito. One could cut the burrito in half, but that would cause the balance to be undone—leaving a heart of rice and ribs of lettuce behind. At some point, I began to worry what this burrito would do to my body. If we are what we eat, then all my layers are dissolving—a bone-blood sludge. A body of filth. A body of trash. A body of refuse. A body I begin to refuse.
The perfect crisp moon of tortilla. A shadowing of beans. Clean simplicity—easier on my muddling mind to accept.
I started making Mexican Pizzas at home after ordering one on a road trip. I baked corn tortillas until they puffed to golden orbs. Spread a layer of refried beans. Another tortilla. Enchilada sauce. Cheese. Tiny green rings of scallion. The distance from Taco Bell to my kitchen gives me guilt-ebbed solace. The white tiled countertop is smooth and ordered. Gray grout. Empty. I am clean I am clean I am clean I am good.
O, sauce. Mild Hot Fire Diablo Verde. Taking a handful of each. Carefully tearing the packet open and sucking on it, as if it were a popsicle. The metallic edges on my tongue, like tiny jagged teeth on my lips. The smooth spice. This was not a fast food. This was holy. Squeezing until flat. Discarded gleam. Even after I stopped eating the food at Taco Bell, I would sit with my friends as they devoured tacos and burritos and I would be there, a sauce packet to my mouth, experiencing the night. I remember how the stars darkened next to the fluorescent yellow glow. This is far away now though, I can no longer imagine my tongue this careless.
Cheesy Fiesta Potatoes
Is a party even a party without potatoes and cheese? I used to swirl the sour cream and nacho cheese into one another—a cloud splitting with sunlight. Spork scratching styrofoam. Now, I eat a slightly higher quality version at a local bar: cheese fries. The color of the cheese sauce is softer than the electric, toxic Taco Bell nacho yellow. Only slightly. A slice of provolone on top. The classiest of cheese fries is garnished with more cheese. Fork required. A step up or maybe just away from Cheesy Fiesta Potatoes. I know this. I am learning to give up guilt. I am disrupting my brain’s desire to make raw and vegetable and health and clean and good and moral synonymous.
I struggle with choosing what or where to eat almost every night. I think about it to the point of obsession. What I really love to do, if it’s a night in, is pair my dinner with certain TV shows. Law and Order SVU is a vegetable soup show. Bob’s Burgers and Marvelous Mrs. Maisel is a curry and samosa show. Insecure and Veronica Mars and Grey’s Anatomy (because there are many forms of trash consumption) is a noodles and eggrolls show. Schitt’s Creek is a pasta and wine show. See, I crave structures and rituals when it comes to food. My partner, on the other greasy hand, is unstructured and unceremonious about eating. The floor of his car is littered with hamburger or burrito wrappers. Once, I was being particularly difficult about what to have for dinner. We finally went to the store and bought ingredients to make cheese and bean quesadillas. Later, my partner told me that what he really wanted was Taco Bell, but he was afraid I’d be grossed out by it. He’s not wrong, but he’s not exactly right either. Again, I consider the closeness of nostalgia and nausea. I look at how I’ve reimagined Taco Bell orders to fit into my disordered mind. I know now that trash and fast and immoral and bad and dirty and my body are not synonymous.
I imagine myself and my partner in the future. The menu is a guiltless gleam of possibility. A Taco Bell bag between us. Tearing packet after packet of hot sauce. Dousing regret with fire sauce. Wildly embracing trash, together.