My name’s Viraj Mehta and the only place I could think to start was Taco Bell.
To be perfectly clear, I don’t think Taco Bell is good food, either nutritionally or in taste. But I have noticed that Taco Bell succeeds more than any other restaurant at being there for me when I need it most. As a vegetarian who has spent a fairly large fraction of his life road-tripping around the Lower 48, Taco Bell is my go-to for when I’m in Lubbock, TX or Sandusky, OH, or, on one memorable occasion, Gary, IN. The familiar blend of rehydrated beans, bland tortillas, and cheese that is almost Kraft but not quite is the same anywhere you go. So while I have never had a good meal at Taco Bell, I’ve also never had a bad one.
This unyielding devotion to consistency has bought Taco Bell a favored place in the hearts, minds, and stomachs of my family. Whenever we get together, wherever we get together, after an excellent home-cooked Indian meal for dinner, the cousins pile into the car and roll out to the Bell. It’s a weird and definitely unhealthy tradition, but it ties us together in the most second-generation immigrant of ways: Taco Bell is something this country generally laughs at that we have taken to love. Love for its consistency and love for its availability.
The first-generation equivalent is way weirder.
My dad is a 59-year-old gastroenterologist who has been in this country for over 25 years, but he has a few things he likes here more than usual: He likes basketball. He likes pizza. He likes mustard. Guessing at the experiences that have led to this oddly specific collection of favorites is a thought experiment I think might be enjoyable for the reader. The first is easy.
It helps to picture my father: a skinny Indian man with a thick black mustache and a relationship with grammar that can best be described as casual.
For a man who made it here in the eighties and grew up playing badminton and cricket, the grace and power and, ultimately, dominance of Magic and Larry in the 80s and Michael in the 90s must have made lonely nights after long hospital shifts that much more bearable. To me, the image of a lonely Indian man in a new country dazzled by the NBA evokes pride in this nation and my ancestry. For a guy in Chicago who dealt with human misery all day, this had to have been an escape.
Then and now, my dad generally eats one meal a day. Back then, it was two Dominos large cheese pizzas. Bachelor to the max. This happened every day for two years in the early nineties. While he was watching the ascendancy of Jordan, my dad was eating cheese pizza and chilling out.
I’m sure he wasn’t too familiar with cheese before that. There are times in my life where I’m a little bored or stressed and my mind and body begin to wander and I snap back to reality at the fridge having eaten a couple handfuls of shredded cheese and I wonder what the hell is wrong with me and marvel at how I’m not 400 lbs and experience the sickly-sweet satisfaction that all of this has brought me. My dad didn’t have that lovely cacophony of sensation. He had Dominos. I am spoiled.
I’m not entirely sure how mustard fits into this at all.
It doesn’t go with pizza, and only is really paired with meat-heavy foods. However, for someone to go his entire life without ever tasting it and then tenatively dipping a French Fry into this bright-yellow chutney dolloped on his plate while alone at some McDonalds in the greater Chicago area, mustard would probably have been shocking. Especially, if on this quest to try condiments, he had tried ketchup first.