There’s only one piece of dogma I’ve never questioned: Mexican Pizza is the best thing at Taco Bell. That makes the fact that in 2020 Taco Bell removed the Mexican Pizza from its menu, by very far not the most painful loss of 2020, but, all the same, one worth mourning at year’s end.
Eating at Taco Bell is how I stay in touch with my Midwestern roots. I learned about the Taco Bell Mexican Pizza when I was ten or twelve, and when everything my older cousins and sister did in our corners of early 90s Chicago suburbs was the coolest thing. They can drive, which means they control the world I get to see when my parents aren’t the ones driving. So they’re the ones who take me to Taco Bell and drill into me the truth about Mexican Pizza. It’s not like me (ask completely fully literally anyone who has ever met me) but I’ve never questioned this one piece of their wisdom since.
Taco Bell Mexican Pizza was never much to look at, and so you really have to give it to Taco Bell for attempting any promotional photo shoots at all. While no one except the lactose-intolerant would suggest melted cheese wasn’t delicious, I have to imagine part of why we have so many action shots of melted cheese ripping apart in Taco Bell commercials, print, and digital media alike is because stagnant melted cheese is a hop, step, and tiny leap from greasy goop, its texture hovering between luxurious (though processed) fat and liquid, the way the nacho cheese product served in movie theatres (remember movie theatres!!) best exemplifies it. Cheese is the penultimate layer of the Mexican Pizza, before the black olive slices, diced tomatoes, and sliced green onion, but after enchilada sauce, all of which is layered on top of two fried tortillas (née tostadas) that hug close to either seasoned ground beef and refried pinto beans or just the beans. Like some of the most comforting things, it’s really a very simple idea.
And now it’s gone. I was later to the news about Taco Bell’s discontinuing the Mexican Pizza than the rest of the Internets. Which means I didn’t get to sign the petition with a hundred and fifty thousand other people to try and save it. And I didn’t get to write anything alongside either folks from Desi communities or other vegetarians about how crucial the now-gone potato option were in the hopes that Taco Bell would reconsider. I’m even a little late for the belated reflections on Mexican Pizza’s new and weird absence. (It’s only weird for now, until hardly anyone remembers how quickly you had to eat it before it got too soggy.)
It was in early September (right around March 184th) that Taco Bell put out a press release about their new menu items and their reasoning behind discontinuing their Mexican Pizza, including that it would do away with the “7 million pounds of paperboard material per year in the U.S..” That much is hard to argue with. The same press release anticipated the outpouring from its fans: “We know some fans may be sad to see this one go, we are too.” Phrased as though it’s out of the company’s own control, as though the introduction of the Crunchwrap Supreme wasn’t, maybe, part of the Mexican Pizza’s “planned obsolescence” all along.
The translation of Mexican food to commercial fast food to fast casual is not only about how good Mexican food is, but about the ease with which some of its components’ permutations scale in systems dictated by the taxonomies of value menus. Tortillas, meat, beans, cheese, garnish. In general, the tortillas can be wrapped in different ways depending on their size, flat, fried, just heated on a griddle. The meat can also be chicken, veggies, chorizo, birria, carnitas. The beans can be black, pinto, refried or not. The cheese can be queso fresco, Oaxaca, cheddar, Monterrey Jack, nacho. Or the cheese can be absent and be onions and parsley instead. The garnish can be pico de gallo, more salsa, olives, onions. Or the garnish can be lime (my preference).
And yet (and yet! and yet!) we forge real relationship to our combinations of combinations. And those combinations of combinations become a tiny piece of the stability we carve out of everyday tumult or the particular and more intense precarity this year.
Is it only strange to be grateful that we have the capacity to be so attached to one particular combination amidst an ocean of pre-packaged permutations? I don’t think so. Something like: being able to love Taco Bell’s Mexican Pizza this hard, this much, this emphatically offers the promise that no matter the amount of corporate control, our capacities for simple sincerity might not entirely disappear. They will not be untouched, not unhindered. But even in the face of the overuse of the word “unprecedented,” in the middle of a year of relative forms of isolation and loneliness and innumerable forms of loss and acute exacerbations of the suffering that subsists in permutations and combinations of this incarnation of settler colonial racial capitalist dystopia (the kind of dystopia that creates a Taco Bell in the first place), sincerity itself will remain, somehow, able to function.
When I heard the sad news, I asked other Taco Bell enthusiasts about their Mexican Pizza memories and was met with a belated outpouring for the tostada-adjacent experience like the one across social media a couple months ago. My friend Barrington eulogized, “I feel like the Mexican Pizza was Taco Bell’s first foray into the hybrid foods for which they have become increasingly known. It’s the genesis of a lineage that begat Naked Chicken Chalupas, Spicy Pop Rocks-infused ‘Firecracker Burritos’ & Doritos Locos Tacos. The abuelito of them all.” He said his mom “loved Mexican Pizzas, and more than that, loves all of its children.” Jason, another friend, dedicated a song to the discontinued dish. A lifetime of memories, indeed.
In addition to not being the most spectacular or most pressing loss right now, the loss of Taco Bell Mexican Pizza might also not actually be the most delicious. And yet (and yet!! and yet!!), its particular shape of loss tugs at me anyway – belated, communally acknowledged, but experienced in relative isolation from one another, just about (but only just about) inevitable given the structures of power and wealth that shape commercial and political landscapes alike.
The corporate-approved sympathy note from a Taco Bell spokesperson has the kind of practiced confidence that aims and flails toward the sincerity so many really did feel on hearing the Mexican Pizza was going to disappear. The spokesperson encouraged fans to “find something new to love.” In context, it was meant as an exciting opportunity to try the new things Taco Bell was going to have on the menu instead. But even in that context it sounded tone deaf to me.
Vantage matters, of course. Positioning does too. We’re going to find something new to love, we maybe already have. But here is the sliver of silver: it’s mostly because in this particularly lopsided and terrible structure of life, pleasure, and hunger, no matter what’s on any menu, the particular, obvious, unfussy ease of melted cheese, a seasoned protein, enchilada sauce, and tortillas is actually, just honestly and sincerely, and with the kind of sincerity that also promises something like love, something we need.
Monica Huerta is an assistant professor at Princeton University. Her book Magical Habits is forthcoming from Duke UP in 2021. Since she doesn’t cook, without Taco Bell Mexican Pizza, she subsists on Luna Bars and high fives.
Image: Still from 1988 Taco Bell Advertisement; woman smiling with a mouth full of Mexican Pizza.