Half and half, climate control, the Bay Area, flying coach, CalArts, dixiecrats, interstate, upstate, social security, freshman, sophomore, co-pay, greek week, 5th, NPR, UPS, beer bong, solo cups, postmates, pepto bismol, oxy, popping an oxy, popping a melatonin, tater tots and Gatorade.
I couldn’t tell you exactly what any of these words mean, though some of them I could give you the general gist. They’re saved in my brain, absorbed from the great surges of American culture that wash across the rest of the world. Like flotsam these terms get picked up, carried along and deposited with everything else, even when what they refer to doesn’t exist over here. For now they’re redundant; not left over from concepts that are no longer around but harbingers of ones that might be in the future.
I’ve never been to America, but I could describe the brownstones and the tenements of New York, going to get bagels and fresh coffee in the morning and garbage plates in the evening. I could tell you about the fake friends and athleisure wear and sun-drenched hiking spots of Los Angeles, the Ethiopian food of Washington, the deep dish pizza in Chicago, the chewing tobacco of Virginia, the despair of Detroit, the bayous of Louisiana, Mardi Gras and voodoo tourist shops in New Orleans. The segregation of Dallas.
Although I get a good dose from literature and a dash from reality TV, most of the fodder packed into my feeding tube of Americana comes from Youtube, especially vlogs. I spend most of my day virtually following around American Youtubers. I watch them shop in Target and try on thrifting hauls and go to drive-through Starbucks. Most of all I watch them do ‘mukbangs’ or eating shows.
Mukbang is actually a Korean word but I only watch American mukbangers. Quite a few are Asian-American because there’s definitely a fetishistic viewership that like seeing petite Asian women or men cram entire crabs into their faces. But I like mukbangers who do it alongside other videos of them driving or waking up in the morning or crying, then you really get a rounded view of their lives.
In my opinion, there are three great oeuvres of American mukbang artists:
Trisha Paytas’s work, which encompasses everything from her making and consuming her own Kraft mac and cheese to buying four different takeaway pizzas to compare which one is best. She claims to have introduced mukbangs to the English-speaking world with the first ever American mukbang. It was of Taco Bell.
The Try Guy’s ‘Eat the Menu’ series where Keith Guy eats every single thing you can order from a chosen fast food outlet. This is good to watch simply because Keith does not enjoy the ordeal. It’s physically unpleasant but oddly compelling. The idea that spawned the series was ‘Keith Eats Everything at Taco Bell’.
The videos of Jeffree Star, a mega-rich beauty guru who gets sent Taco Bell PR packages and was invited to stay in the exclusive Taco Bell hotel, ‘The Bell’.
Most of the chains Americans mukbang from I also recognise from memes. There’s Cheesecake Factory (menu much wider than just cheesecake), Olive Garden (they provide unlimited breadsticks, their breadsticks are a meme), Chik-fil-a (homophobic), Panda Express (why I thank the Lord every hamlet in the UK has its own family-run Chinese takeaway), Chipotle (it gives you diarrhea, another meme), Wendy’s (‘ma’am, this is a Wendy’s’), Chili’s (‘Hi welcome to Chili’s’) and finally the eponymous Taco Bell.
The things I know about Taco Bell I learn from these mukbangs: The crunchwrap supreme is ‘perhaps the greatest hexagon ever created’. ‘There is one major shortcoming of Taco Bell and that is the lettuce’. ‘There’s nothing better than chicken quesadillas from Taco Bell.’ ‘I wish Baja Blast was the blood running through my veins.’
There’s definitely an element of vicarious pleasure and nourishment to be had from mukbangs. To watch people hyperbolise about how delicious their Dorito taco is while a fleck of shell still hangs from their lip. But for foreigners like me the food attains the level of fable. I wanted Taco Bell even more because I couldn’t have it. Or that’s what I thought.
Enter Chelmsford, a London commuter city I moved to in October 2018. Chelmsford’s highstreet, devoid of any independent shops, and bisected by a cloudy river, leads directly from its 800 year old cathedral at one end to the sixth Taco Bell to be opened in the UK at the other.
When I explored the city for the first time and its familiar pink, purple and yellow logo hooved into view it felt like meeting an online friend in real life. This was finally my chance to experience the magic.
I know my audience so I will not speak my objective view of the food of Taco Bell. It didn’t help that my expectations were sky high from watching mukbangs where every cruchwrap supreme seemed mythic in its deliciousness. Where chicken wrapped around lettuce looked like the perfect mouthful of crunchy and smooth. Where each puddle of nuclear yellow cheese promised it would flood your mouth with flavour.
For those of us who watch them from other countries, American mukbangs are a fantasy. When I experienced Taco Bell in real life that fantasy dissolved. It was a disappointment, but maybe also a relief.
A long-time measurement of American cultural dominance has been to count how many McDonald’s there are in the world. In school we had to memorise the year the first McDonald’s opened in the USSR, because it had so much historic significance. Fast-food culture is seen as ubiquitous with the USA, so when Jeffree crows ‘God bless America!’ at the end of his mukbang, no one is surprised. The giants of this scene (McDonalds, KFC, Burger King, Pizza Hut and Dominoes) are already household names in the UK.
It’s such a good market for expanding American fast food chains that the UK was the location of the first ever European Taco Bell in 1986. Although that venture had to close up shop in the 90s, in 2010 a new generation began spawning like barbarians in an empire-strategy PC game. They’re even confident enough to start branches on a romantic whim, opening a location in the original Irvine in Scotland, predecessor of Irvine, California where the Taco Bell headquarters are. There are now 46 Taco Bells in the UK, almost 2.8% of the amount of Greggs.
British people are meant to know this isn’t entirely a good thing. We’re meant to feel a little guilty, a little bit of a traitor when we eat a bucket of KFC or a quarter pounder, but not when we buy Nissin Damae ramen or drink a Heineken beer. Eating American fast food is a bit taboo. Not only because America is undoubtedly succeeding in its cultural imperialism, but also because fast food encompasses everything that is meant to be wrong with it.
Taco Bell, and other fast food chains have become not only part of national-mythologizing but personal-mythologizing. Just from reading Taco Bell Quarterly it’s clear Taco Bell can be someone’s childhood, their relationship, how they relate to their body, their family, their friends. It’s a cultural touchstone. It’s a tiny piece of joy or comfort that’s cheap and accessible. It’s like a Nando’s, a Greggs sausage roll or a ‘Spoons breakfast. It’s also a capitalist corporation. The organic symbiosis of brand and zeitgeist is a beautiful and scary part of the 21st century. To try and turn away from globalization is to turn away from something as inevitable as the migration of the birds.
In a strange coincidence the same week I moved to Chelmsford and sampled its cheesy offerings, Jeffree Starr made a Taco Bell mukbang with a twist. This video, called ‘TRYING TACO BELL IN ANOTHER COUNTRY [taco emoji] DID I SURVIVE?!’, was shot during the Manchester leg of his UK tour. He had also just tried British Taco Bell for the first time.
‘Bitch, we just landed in Manchester and we found the Holy Grail of America.’ Jeffree sings as he films the Taco Bell for Snapchat. Inside, him and his squad are shook by the size of the drinks cups: ‘In America this would be an extra-small.’ When they try Pepsi Max for the first time they’re confused. ‘It’s not as sweet.’ ‘Oh my god I hate it.’ ‘It’s literally straight up diet.’ They were noticing the lack of high-fructose corn syrup commonly used as a sweetener in the USA because it’s subsidised by the American government.
However, they found the meat tasted more flavourful. This could be because of a difference in food standards for livestock between the US and UK (this difference has become so politicised here it’s now a point of contention about Brexit.) In the end Jeffree’s crew decided the drinks tasted worse, the meat tasted better and overall they don’t know which country’s Taco Bell they preferred.
I came to a realisation. Even though the Taco Bell logo was on it, it was plain old British food that I didn’t enjoy. Or rather, a mix of imported and British food just like any other product. Although logos and labels float around they aren’t intrinsic to what’s actually on our plate. Whether there’s a bell, a bendy M, or a union jack on a tub of liquid cheese it’ll taste like a tub of liquid cheese. As much as food is political we won’t say ‘I remember consuming consumerism, I ate America from a greasy paper bag and I became the American dream’. We’ll just say ‘I remember when I tried that gordita crunch thing when we were walking down the Kingsway and it tasted so good.’
Rich Giptar is a writer from the UK who is passionate about never leaving the house and watching horror movies. They own no pets but have some stuffed toys.Their favourite takeaway dish is black bean tofu. They tweet @richgiptar