The Taco Principle: Cooking vs. Eating

I just tried the wildly, inexplicably successful Dorito Loco Taco at Taco Bell. It was, of course, bad. Now, bear with me for a moment. I know this column is about home cooking, not fast-food reviews. But eating this awful food made me think of an important kitchen principle that affects even the most conscientious of cooks. Let’s call it the hard taco principle.

The hard taco, as we know it from places like Taco Bell, looks great to the cook. S/he takes the taco, puts in the meat, then puts lettuce on top of that, followed by shredded american cheese and whatever other toppings she wants. It looks bright and colorful, and s/he hands it to the customer, who is then left with the task of eating it. But you can’t really eat it, in any rational way. For one thing, the taco is made in the shape of a vertical U, which is anatomically impossible to eat without turning it sideways. But the toppings are meant to rest on the meat, and will fall out if turned sideways; it’s not like they are tucked in, or bound to the meat by anything other than gravity.

This fact speaks to another unforgivable design flaw in the hard taco. The only thing that might keep the lettuce and the cheese from falling off would be putting the cheese first, and then the lettuce. Some lettuce would still fall off, but who cares? Nobody likes lettuce anyway. It has no flavor; it’s just there for color and a little bit of texture.

And this brings up yet another point. Nobody likes cold shredded cheese, either. The cheese should, in fact, be mixed up with the ground meat. That meat is nasty and dry, and needs the cheese badly, much as the waxy, flavorless cheese needs melting to make it edible. The two things ought to be mixed, and spread evenly through the taco, along with the lettuce, so that you didn’t have to take one bite of shredded cheese salad and one bite of straight meat as you worked your way across the taco. The whole thing is a disaster. And it all happens because the cook, and by extension the whole thinking process behind the taco, never reckons with what it is like to eat it. By the way, everything I’m speaking out here is universally true of hard tacos, not just the Dorito Loco taco. That’s bad because its celebrated shell isn’t even an actual Dorito. So it’s a gyp as well as a structural failure.

We make this mistake at home all the time. Every time we put four things on a plate and expect the person who eats it to assemble it all one fork; every time we give someone a piece of pie that spills its guts all over the plate; every time we give somebody chicken wings without any place to put the bones; every time we put out soft bread and hard butter; we are making it hard to eat our food well. When I make pancakes for Danit, I carefully spread softened butter and maple syrup across each cake, because I know that no one can lift up each cake and insert butter and syrup evenly once they’ve been piled up. It’s really just as simple as  It’s a small thing, but it matters. And it matters a lot.

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