Local Fare for the Win

When you pick up and move to a new town 1,500 miles from where you used to live, “getting the house in order” is a little overwhelming. Thirty years in the same spot creates a lot of favorite “thises” and preferred “thats”. So whenever my wife & I step away from the endless unpacking, we’re trying out supermarkets, large-animal vets (for the horses), and restaurants, to figure out which ones best replace those we chose time and time again in Colorado. And here’s what we’ve quickly discovered about life in the South (of the U.S.): good Mexican food is a tough ask.

Pizza as it should be

Let’s take a bit of a detour. (Don’t worry; we’ll be back on the main highway before you know it.)  In a surprisingly candid post from fellow blogger Brilliant Viewpoint, her recent trip to Rome and Florence determined pizza – at least the classic Italian version of the pie – is not what it used to be.  The writer suggested the crusts are like cardboard, the mozzarella chunky and unappetizing, and the pizza itself a little soggy.  Having spent a college year in Italy (when I survived on pizza and not much else), I found her conclusions shocking.  Maybe this is why Domino’s – they of the generic-but-convenient home-delivered product in America – decided to give Italy a try?  It’s true.  In 2015, a Dominos franchise opened several stores across Italia to capture the then non-existent delivery market.  It almost worked.

No matter what the state of Italian pizza these days, Domino’s Pizza stores in this of all countries lands on my “you’ve got to be kidding me” list (alongside Starbucks coffee).  Put yourselves in their shoes to understand the absurdity of it all.  You’re an Italian.  Pizza was invented in your country, which has thousands more years of history than America.  You can choose from any pizzeria on any block of any street in your town and the homemade product will be excellent.  Yet you’re going to call Domino’s to order a mass-produced American knock-off instead?  At least Baskin-Robbins was sensible enough to stay away instead of going head-to-head with gelato.

You shouldn’t be surprised to learn – after a seven-year run – Domino’s Italian franchisee filed for bankruptcy in April.  “Of course“, you say. “Their product just couldn’t compete.”  Well, that’s not quite the story.  It was more about pizza delivery itself.  Remarkably, Italy had very little delivery before the pandemic.  You wanted a pie back then, you went out into the streets and got it.  But just like American restaurants, Italian pizzerias did whatever it took to survive the pandemic years, and that meant delivery to front doors.  Domino’s thought they had the market cornered before they ever entered it.  Next thing they knew, everyone else was doing the same thing.

No matter the reason, I’m happy to say arrivederci to Domino’s Pizza in Italy.  Franchise food doesn’t feel right in a country with so much history and wonderful local food.  Shortly after my college year in the 1980s, I learned a McDonald’s restaurant somehow landed a lease at the base of Rome’s famous Spanish Steps.  That’s like painting a mustache on the Mona Lisa.  America has much to offer the world, but fast food is not our proudest accomplishment.  I’m not even sure it’s an accomplishment.

Let’s get back to the main highway now.  Up top we were talking about Mexican food… er, the lack of it, in the American South.  It’s true, if our new little town is any indication.  Yes, we have several options to beat a sit-down at Taco Bell, but they’re only a whisper better.  Everything looks and tastes so generic.  What should be salsa roja inside of enchiladas tastes more like pizza sauce.  What should be a margarita with the sublime afterbite of tequila tastes like syrupy lemonade.  The chips might as well be Doritos.  Yet you look around and the restaurant is packed.  These people don’t know what they’re missing, but they seem happy enough.  As a result, just like Dominos, I don’t expect a Mexican restaurant from outside of the region to waltz into town and do well.

My theory on good Mexican food goes like this: the further west and south you go the better it gets.  Colorado and Tex-Mex trump anything east of the Mississippi.  Arizona and Southern California fare trump Colorado and Texas.  In other words, my favorite Mexican place in my new hometown is destined to be close to my front door. In fact, it’s inside my front door.  It’s my kitchen.  Time to start making my own margaritas and enchiladas. 

Some content sourced from the CNN Business article, “Domino’s tried to sell pizza to Italians…”, and the Brilliant Viewpoint blog.

Hopping on Pop

In the Dr. Seuss children’s classic Hop On Pop, readers travel through pages of rhyming word pairs, with the usual whimsical cartoon characters acting out the scenes (ex. “All Ball, we all play ball” and “Day Play, we play all day”). It’s not until about halfway through the book where you see the title pair, “Hop Pop”.  And when I saw “STOP, you must not Hop on Pop”, I decided Dr. Seuss was referring to the latest junk food mashup, “Pepsi x Peeps”.

This blog often comments on sweets – so much so I should probably have a category called “sugar”.  I’ve talked about Halloween candy, chocolate, and licorice, and it’s a little unsettling I’ve discussed doughnuts in two of the last ten posts.  Naturally, my literary sugar addiction couldn’t resist a word or two on a truly disturbing concoction.  Just in time for Easter, Pepsi is advertising a Peeps-flavored soft drink.  I’m trying to get my taste-buds imagination around this “pillowy-soft and sweet” marshmallow-flavored cola.  I can’t taste it, can you?  All I come up with is sugar.  Lots and lots of sugar.

You know Peeps.  Of course, you do.  The colorful marshmallow bunnies and chicks are the hot item every Easter in the U.S. and Canada.  Consumer demand for the cute little creatures means Just Born Quality Confections cranks out 2 billion every year.  Naturally, Peeps has moved past Easter to be available year-round, especially for other holidays.  Just Born even expanded the product line beyond candy, most notably with a Peeps-flavored line of lip balms.

Courtesy of PepsiCo.

With off-the-charts (and inexplicable) demand for Peeps, I shouldn’t be surprised Pepsi injected the flavor into its latest hybrid drink.  But here’s what bothers me.  Even if marshmallow-tasting cola is your thing (and you should have your taste buds examined), why does it have to be “Pepsi x Peeps”?  It’s not as if the marshmallow taste of Peeps is unique. (It might as well be “Pepsi x Lucky Charms”.)  The appeal of Peeps is exactly what’s not in the Pepsi product: fluorescent colors, cute little creatures, and sugar-dusted spongy-soft marshmallows.

I consider “Pepsi x Peeps” a disservice to marshmallows everywhere.  Marshmallows deserve their place in more respectable foods.  Oozing out of S’mores around the campfire.  Adorning sweet potato casserole on Thanksgiving.  Buried in Rocky Road ice cream.  Abundant in Rice Krispy treats.  Floating gracefully in a sea of hot chocolate.  But reduced to a mere flavor, wandering aimlessly amidst the carbonation bubbles of a cola?  That’s just harsh.

A more deserving “frankenfood”

No matter.  Consumers love new products, especially combos of tastes that were already good by themselves.  Burger King combined Cheetos and Mac ‘n’ Cheese for a carb-loaded side dish.  Taco Bell combined Doritos and tacos into one of its all-time best-selling entrees.  And Reese’s perfected peanut butter and chocolate as a candy (as did many others as an ice cream).

Courtesy of PepsiCo.

I won’t be buying “Pepsi x Peeps” anytime soon.  But neither will you.  In the ultimate snub, this promotion is not for a product you will find on your grocery store shelves anytime soon.  Instead, you can only “win” the drink by hashtagging #HangingWithMyPeeps on your springtime photos.  3,000 of the most creative Instagram and Twitter promotions will win three-packs of the colorful cans.  I won’t be entering.  Instead, I’ll be expending my limited social media energy elsewhere.

I was raised in a Coke household so maybe it’s natural for me to knock Pepsi down a peg or two.  But they’re kind of asking for it when they’ve already test-marketed products like “Pepsi Holiday Spice” and “Pepsi Salted Caramel”.  They even amped the caffeine level in one of their varieties to promote it as a ‘breakfast drink”.  Pepsi will stop at nothing to get your business.  Including coercing you to provide free advertising on social media.  Suckers.

Stay strong, little one

I hope “Peepsi” amounts to nothing more than an out-of-reach sweepstakes giveaway.  I hope marshmallows soon return to their roles as cute, colorful, edible animals.  C’mon, Pepsi – the Easter Bunny wants you to know: Stop hopping on pop!

Some content sourced from Laura Miller’s YouTube audiobook, “Hop on Pop”,  the People.com article, “Pepsi and Peeps Have Joined Forces to Create Marshmallow Soda”, and Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia”.

Standing on Tacos

Red’s Giant Hamburg – Springfield, MO – may be America’s first drive-thru restaurant. Red’s opened in 1947 from a converted gas station, closed in 1984, then opened again last year. In the United States it’s not really “fast food” without the drive-thru, is it?  McDonald’s certainly agrees, as does Burger King.  But Taco Bell, they think outside the tortilla.  Just last year the Bell opened a taco-themed hotel and resort in Palm Springs, CA.

A taco-themed hotel and resort – really, you ask?  Yes but more on that in a minute.  It helps to cover some of Taco Bell’s earlier adventures first.  Founder Glen Bell started his restaurant in the 1960s as the copycat of a local Los Angeles walk-up taco stand.  The concept of “American-Mexican fast food” quickly franchised to 100 locations in less than five years.  Today you’ll count 7,000+ Taco Bell locations in two dozen countries.  Two billion customers frequented the Bell in 2019.

I’ve always admired Taco Bell… er, from afar.  I can’t tell you the last time I navigated TB’s drive-thru (probably my kids’ high school days).  Don’t get me wrong, I love Mexican food.  But eating at Taco Bell is like supplanting an Italian artisan pizza with a Little Caesars.  In other words, I prefer my Mexican at authentic Mexican restaurants.

But there’s no denying Taco Bell’s success.  They chose six or seven essential ingredients and spun an entire low-cost menu out of them.  Take the $1.49 soft taco.  Four components: seasoned beef, lettuce, and cheese, inside a soft tortilla.  Add sour cream, tomatoes, or other options, but you’ll pay $0.40 or more for each.  The only freebies are the hot sauce packets at the pick-up window.

From the Taco Bell soft taco evolved an entire zoo of animales.  You have the Taco Supreme, Chalupa Supreme, Cheesy Gordita Crunch, and (for the really adventurous) the Nachos Cheese Doritos Locos Taco Supreme.  From the Taco Bell burrito you get the Burrito Supreme, Grilled Cheese Burrito, Beefy 5-Layer Burrito, Quesarito, and Crunchwrap Supreme.  Again, all of these wild animales come from pretty much the same small set of ingredients.

Taco Bell’s successful run endures at a time when foodies lean more towards farm-to-table organic.  So why does it still work?  Marketing.  Taco Bell’s all about creative thinking.  Some examples:

  1. Taco Bell branded their hot sauce, taco shells, chips, and shredded cheese, and you can find them on your supermarket shelves.  No drive-thru necessary.
  2. TB teamed up with several pro sports franchises to offer free food based on individual performances (i.e. steal a base, score so many points, score so many runs = free tacos).
  3. In 2001, when the Mir Space Station re-entered the earth’s atmosphere, Taco Bell floated a giant target in the Pacific Ocean and promised a free taco to every American if a bit of the space station (designed to break up) hit the target.  (No such luck.)
  4. In 2013, Taco Bell designed a waffle taco, filled it with scrambled eggs and sausage, added a side of syrup, and called it breakfast.  The waffle taco is no longer on the menu but breakfast still is (if you consider a Hash Brown Toasted Burrito “breakfast”).
  5. In 2016, Taco Bell test-marketed a Cheetos Burrito.  That’s all you really need to know, right?
  6. In 2017, Taco Bell partnered with Lyft to offer “Taco Mode”.  Rides from 9pm-2am included a stop at Taco Bell.

Which brings us to the Taco Bell hotel.  In the summer of 2019, TB converted an existing Palm Springs resort into a live-in advertisement, “the biggest expression of the Taco Bell lifestyle to date”, according to its Chief Global Brand Officer. 

Not only did they slap the TB brand all over the resort, but they also offered the full Taco Bell menu, poolside cocktails “infused with a Taco Bell twist”, a “not-to-miss gift shop” (including a Forever 21 fashion line of Taco Bell apparel), and a salon where nail art and hairstyles were decidedly “Bell”.  The resort was a pop-up, only intended to operate for a few days, but reservations sold out within two minutes of being offered.

“Gidget the Chihuahua”

Taco Bell has one more menu item I didn’t mention above: the Spicy Potato Soft Taco.  Er, had.  The Bell discontinued it but not before Bryant Hoban (of O’Fallon, MO – not far from Red’s Giant Hamburg) purchased and froze three of them.  A few weeks later Hoban sold the “mint condition soft tacos” through Facebook.  For $70.  Each.  With that kind of endorsement, it’s safe to say the Bell will be ringing for many years to come.

Some content sourced from Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia”, and the Fox News article, “Taco Bell is opening a taco-themed hotel and resort”.

The Senior Years

A human life has several stages, but exactly how many stages will probably cost you a Google search. Would you believe nine? Pregnancy, infancy, “the toddler years”, childhood, puberty, “the adolescent years”, adulthood, middle age, and “the senior years”. That’s a lot of stages (and I suddenly feel tired).  According to my age – 57 – I’ve battled Father Time through the first seven on the list and hover somewhere between the last two. And therein lies today’s question: What the heck defines “the senior years”?

In case I forget – as seniors are wont to do – allow me to wish you a very happy “Senior Citizens Day”!  No joke (and no Hallmark card – I checked), August 21st is the calendar date set aside “to increase awareness about the issues that face older adults”.  Well now, doesn’t that just call for a celebration?  No, it doesn’t.  In fact, my fingers feel a little more arthritic just typing about it.

Admittedly, I’ve been a senior before, back in a couple of those earlier life stages.  I was a senior in high school.  I was a senior in college.  In the Boy Scouts, I was a senior patrol leader.  If I’d thought to name one of my sons after myself, I could’ve been “Dave Sr.”.  Now however, wrestling with the idea of advanced middle age, I’m forced to confront the one, true definition of “senior”.  The word in that sense (especially senior citizen) – is a little daunting.  I prefer “older” or “more experienced”.  You know, the softer side of Sears.

Reagan

Blame former U.S. President Ronald Reagan if you’re looking for a scapegoat.  After all, he’s the one who – while in office – declared August 21st to be “National Senior Citizens Day” in America.  Reagan signed said proclamation in 1988 at the ripe (older) age of 77.  By all definitions, that made Reagan a senior citizen himself.  Isn’t that kind of like throwing yourself a party?

Speaking of definitions, for all my searches I can’t thumb a tack into the specific age one enters life’s final stage.  Consider the following takes on “senior citizen”:

  1. A polite expression for an old person.
  2. An older person, usually over the age of 60 or 65, esp. one who is no longer employed.
  3. The age at which one qualifies for certain government-sponsored benefits (i.e. Social Security, Medicare).
  4. The United Nations has agreed that 65+ may be usually denoted as “old age”.
  5. Being a senior citizen may be based on your age, but it is not a specific age (say what?)

The definitions get even vaguer, but you see the pattern.  No one – not the United Nations nor Merriam-Webster – wants to tag “senior citizen” with a specific age.  Well, I do.  I want my bedside clock to turn to midnight on the designated date, and instead of beeping the alarm it squawks, “Senior Citizen! Senior Citizen!”  I suppose, if someone held my aging feet to the fire and said, “Choose!”, I’d go with Definitions #2 and #4.  At least then I’m backing up my truck to “middle age”.

Perhaps your definition of senior citizen is more towards retail; as in, the age you start qualifying for discounts, freebies and such.  Sorry old man (old woman?), you’re just complicating the matter (and seniors don’t do “complicated”).  The shopping website DealNews just updated their article, “The 123 Best Senior Discounts to Use in 2019”.  That’s a lot of “bests”, DealNews.  But there’s even more homework for those nearsighted eyes.  You must also know which discount kicks in at what age.  Senior discounts ≠ senior citizen unless you need the following thirteen-year time frame to get used to the idea:

  • Hardee’s – age 52 (that’s me!)
  • McDonald’s – 55 (that’s me again!  But only for coffee and I don’t do McDonald’s coffee).
  • Applebee’s – 60 (may require “Golden Apple Card”.  Oooooooo)
  • Fazoli’s – 62 (and you get the “Club 62” discount menu.  Okay, that sounds cooler than a “Golden Apple Card”)
  • Taco Bell – 65 (plus free drink – ¡Olé!)
  • Wendy’s – “age and offer vary depending on restaurant location” (c’mon, Wendy’s!)

Atta boy, Norm!

Poets and playwrights try to soften the blow of “the senior years” with their eloquent quotes.  The Englishman Robert Browning said, “Grow old along with me!  The best is yet to be.”  The American Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “As we grow old… the beauty steals inward.”  Nice tries, noble poets, but I’ll go with positive thinker Norman Vincent Peale instead.  Norm simply said, “Live your life and forget your age”.  Take that, senior years!