Home Asthma The American Value Meal: Our Longstanding Relationship With Fast Food

The American Value Meal: Our Longstanding Relationship With Fast Food

by Juan D. Vanpelt

In the summer of 2012, bright yellow flyers were posted around Bethel, a remote town of six thousand unsuspecting souls on the bush of western Alaska, with some life-changing news: In a few short weeks, a brand-new Taco Bell would host its grand opening, just in time for the Fourth of July. In a historically dry town with one paved road, one measly Subway shop, and virtually no public transportation, the announcement was met with ecstasy and jubilation. Word whipped around town as quickly and enthusiastically as a subarctic breeze. Tragically for the folks of Bethel, the news was fake. The signs directed anyone interested in working at the landmark Taco Bell to-be to call a number listed on the flyer. The number belonged to a resident who was apparently embroiled in a seven-layer feud with a diabolical hoaxer. The besieged victim had to break the news dozens of times over: There would be no Taco Bell for the Fourth of July in Bethel, Alaska.

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As swiftly as the joy had spread, dejection and low spirits followed. ‘That’s right. Officially, Bethel is not getting a Taco Bell,” went one local radio broadcast after a flood of calls. ‘I repeat: Bethel is not getting a Taco Bell.’ The hoax meant that the nearest Cheesy Gordita Crunch would remain on a four-hundred-mile trek by plane to Anchorage. ‘We got excited because we don’t have any fast-food chains out here, and the idea of Taco Bell coming in?’ the despondent director for the local Chamber of Commerce told the Los Angeles Times. ‘And they were going to be here for the Fourth of July?

Bethel is impossibly isolated, only accessible by either air or sea. So, when news of the cruel hoax reached Taco Bell headquarters in Irvine, California, the company had no choice but to respond by dispatching a military helicopter to airlift a branded taco truck to Bethel right as the town’s Independence Day celebrations were getting underway. “Operation Alaska” included the dramatic transport of 950 pounds of beef, 500 pounds of sour cream, 300 pounds of tomatoes, 300 pounds of lettuce, and 150 pounds of cheddar cheese, followed by the assembly and goodwill distribution of ten thousand Doritos Locos Tacos to an exhilarated crowd. ‘If we can feed people in Afghanistan and Iraq, we can feed people in Bethel,’ said Taco Bell’s then-CEO, Greg Creed, adding to the semi-subtle militarism of the pre–Independence Day taco airlift.

Given Bethel’s size and remoteness, the opening of a permanent Taco Bell outpost was never viable. But on a cloudy, fifty-five-degree summer afternoon in a tundra town in western Alaska, the company conspired to create a brief and surreal sense of belonging through an unlikely combination of spectacle and pre-prepared food. Of course, the story of Operation Alaska would be adapted into a touching national Taco Bell commercial. The ad had it all—disappointment and then euphoria, the minor fall, and the major lift.

Then, we see the redemptive image of a helicopter landing, its rotors whirring, with a taco truck swaying below like a serum for desolation. A happy, disbelieving crowd amasses, and telegenic children blissfully chow into one of the brand’s newest and most fabled products, the Doritos Locos Taco. It features Bethel’s mayor along with some of the townsfolk glumly recounting their dashed hopes for tacos amid some choice B-roll of Alaskan wildflowers and a GONE MUSHING sign. And just like that, America’s birthday had been saved.

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