When I was in the mid-single digits, my father owned a fast food restaurant. He had been working for the Taco Bell corporate division, moving from the test kitchen, (where he invented the Enchirito,) to being a field supervisor.
He had dreams of being a painter, but his time as a beatnik attending art school in San Francisco had shown him that this was not a life choice that was going to lead to his having a family of the kind he could imagine; the white picket fence and his children’s friends playing in the backyard pool were not likely to be a future destination of the existence of a struggling artist.
So he first ventured into the type of job that seemed to be the route to this idyllic future, but working as a small cog squeezed into the machinery of a corporation that valued conformity and absolute obedience to all decisions that came from above, no matter the sense behind them, was not something he could handle. I have since read the reviews that he got from supervisors at the time, and they speak of his performance as good, but that they were concerned about his attitude towards the job. They made me imagine a sense of despair and stress in his life that are backed up by stories I had heard within the family about his having to fly around the Southeast, sometimes multiple short puddle jumper flights a day, week in, week out. It still sounds draining to think of it today. So he became a franchise owner for the company, scraping together loans from his family and working long hours to turn around an outlet that the company thought was unsaveable.
At the time, I was just turning four years old, and my mother was taking care of my younger brother, who was a toddler at the time. My older brother had started school, and sometimes I would need to spend the day at the restaurant with my father. To keep me occupied at the time, he would give me little tasks to do, like slicing olives. The aforementioned Enchiritos were a recent addition to the menu, and they were made with three olive slices in a row on the top lengthwise. Whether or not this was a task that he knew I would enjoy doing, I loved it. I would get a gallon can of olives, open it using the restaurant size can opener that was mounted to the prep table, and pour them into a large pitcher. Then I would pick five of them out, and slice them into four olive circles each, taking pride in how equal they were. I would do this for at least two hours at a time, after which I would move on to using the cheese shredder, making sure each bag was equally full. Then lettuce.
I know, it is odd to say I enjoyed being child labor, but it was meditative, and I loved to watch the pitcher gradually empty, and had a sense of triumph when all that was left was the weird dark olive water. I would then put the prepped veg and cheese into the walk-in freezer, of which I was very scared of the door never opening again.
After all of this, it was usually time for lunch.
Now at the time, being a hearty eater but having definite preferences, I never wanted a taco or a burrito. The tacos were too easy to break, and the burritos were too squishy. There was no way I was going to want an Enchirito, because I did not like the sauce it was covered in, and also weirdly enough, I was not a big fan of eating olives.
At the time, instead of having seventy different items, the Taco Bell menu at the time had one choice left. It was called the Bellbeefer, because they had been served a cease and desist order from McDonald’s and Burger King over the use of the term “Bell Burger.” It was basically a sloppy joe made from the taco meat.
I would eat two of these for lunch with a small root beer, and then sometimes take a nap in the back office. It felt like the reward after my day of work, and it still qualifies in my mind as the best sloppy joe ever. There is a group on Facebook that agrees, by the way…
If you want to make it at home, here is the recipe (shortcuts included).
My best 1975 Bellbeefer Recipe
1 lb. 80/20 Ground Beef
1 T Chili Powder
1 T Cumin
1 small onion
1/2 t paprika
1/2 C cold water
6 hamburger buns, steamed to warm
2/3 – 1 C of Taco Bell Mild Border Sauce (recipe below, or buy at the store)
3/4 C shredded cheddar cheese
(As a shortcut, you can use any packaged taco seasoning in place of the spices)
Brown the ground beef, add the water and spices and simmer until the liquid reduces by half. Then add 1/3 C of the sauce and continue to simmer until almost all of the liquid is gone.
Next, take a freshly steamed bun from the cabinet, and place the halves upside down on the rack. Take a small ladle of the border sauce, and pour it equally on the halves and lightly spread it around so it soaks in slightly. Then put a pinch of diced onion in the center of the bottom half. Next, take a scoop of the taco meat and top the onions with it. Lastly, sprinkle shredded cheddar cheese on top and top it off with the top bun. If you care, the proportions are 1 oz. sauce, ¼ oz. cheese, ¼ oz. cheese, and 3 oz. meat.
Taco Bell Mild Border Sauce
3 C cold water
2 t cornstarch
1 small can tomato paste
3 T distilled white vinegar
4 t chili powder
2 t salt
1 t cayenne pepper
Combine all ingredients in a small saucepan and stir over medium high heat. Boil for 2-3 minutes until it thickens slightly.