When I was 8 years old, I lived in a town so small that my family would drive 30 minutes to the nearest Taco Bell for takeout. By the time we’d driven back home, the food would be cold and slightly soggy. It was still the highlight of each week.
My family is one of the many Indian families who immigrated to the United States in the second major wave of migration from the 1980s to the mid-1990s. I started preschool in the U.S., and it’s fair to say that my childhood was defined by the trappings of American culture. I primarily spoke English, I made white American friends, and I watched American TV. Outwardly I was an average American kid. At home, though, I lived an alternate identity. My Indian parents spoke our native tongue of Gujarati, watched Bollywood movies, spent time with Indian friends, and most notably, exclusively cooked and ate vegetarian Indian food.
At the time, burgers and pizza were unfamiliar territory for Indians migrating to the West. Alternatively, vegetarianism was a largely foreign concept to Americans in the ’90s — and it had certainly not broken through to the mainstream chains we coveted as we struggled to find a place in American culture. Eating out was, for people like us, just not a thing.
“Growing up as a vegetarian in Texas, which was hardly understood 30 years ago, it was next to impossible to find vegetarian-friendly food, much less vegetarian fast food,” says Akansha Sharma, a senior product marketing manager from Houston. “It was — and still is — really novel to look at a menu and be able to order anything, which is possible as a vegetarian at Taco Bell.”
As incongruous as it sounds, the chain that specializes in tacos and burritos was a lifeline for Indian American families. “My family and I would always find something each of us liked,” explains Manasi Arya, a special education teacher and illustrator from Indianapolis. “The sauces were our favorite part, and we still have drawers full of random Taco Bell sauces.”
Taco Bell introduced an option for families like ours to join in the very American tradition of grabbing a cheap fast-food meal. What’s more, it helped my immigrant parents and me to find common ground at a time when we couldn’t agree on much else. As Arya explains, Taco Bell offered a surprisingly appealing combination of details: Spicy sauces and ingredients my parents were familiar with like rice, beans, and veggies — and regular “American food” with cheese.
Which is why it was so startling when Taco Bell first announced that it would remove a number of vegetarian items — the 7-Layer Burrito, the Spicy Potato Soft Taco, Cheesy Fiesta Potatoes — from its menu starting this past August and continuing until last week. “While change is hard,” the company pandered to its disappointed customers, “a simplified menu and innovation process will leave room for new fan favorites.”
While touting the completion of its “menu revamp” — and announcing the elimination of its Mexican Pizza — the chain tried to assuage the concerns of its vegetarian customers by pointing out the menu “remains highly customizable,” encouraging them “to play around on our mobile app.”
But by eliminating specific items that had become so important to vegetarians, and instead encouraging them to place special orders, the message Taco Bell sent was not so subtle, and its priorities became clear. Even if the move was an attempt to improve the bottom line, it also felt personal.
So, in true American fashion, Indian Americans are protesting Taco Bell’s decision to remove the items. Soon after hearing the news, Krish Jagirdar, a venture partner from New York City, started the “Save the Mexican Pizza” petition on Change.org. It’s made its rounds with the Indian American community in the last few months, garnering almost 144,000 signatures.
“I think it’s a huge mistake. Taco Bell is deeply intertwined with Indian American culture,” Jagirdar explains. “For most Indians, the Mexican Pizza was a staple item included in almost every order. Many friends and relatives have sent me screenshots of the petition being shared in various text and WhatsApp groups, often by aunties and uncles as well.”
For many Indian Americans, trips to Taco Bell have been the backdrop to both significant and mundane memories. Memories of my adolescence are earmarked by how accessible Taco Bell was, such was its critical existence in my own family’s life. Vegetarian-friendly fast-food options have, of course, improved immensely in recent years, but the Indian American community’s love for Taco Bell isn’t just about the food. To eat it is to feel at home, a reminder that inclusivity can make all the difference. Taco Bell will live on as an unlikely champion in the Indian American story: When everything else made me felt like an outsider, eating at Taco Bell unwittingly reminded me that choices matter, and that we belong here, too. Fortunately, that feeling won’t disappear entirely, even if the Mexican Pizza has.