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Lauren "Chuck" Shows takes a whiff of one of her favorite foods: a piping hot taquito from Speedway. (Photo by Reilly Dixon)

All I Care to Eat | A taquito, please — hold the shame

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When I was a kid, I lived for a taquito.

If you don’t know — and you probably do, because if you’re reading this fine publication, you’re certainly a person of taste and refinement, but just in case — a taquito is essentially a corn tortilla with some kind of filling, wrapped up into a little flute. The internet tells me that the dish originated from Southern Californian Cal Mex chefs in the late ’20s or early ’30s. (I guess I never thought I’d be Googling “What is the origin of the taquito?” but here we are.)

Taquitos are delicious, and there’s just no getting around that. What can be bad about cheese and meat, or any number of other things, wrapped in a lovely container of milled and fried corn?

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Usually, as was the case in my youth, you can find them in the freezer case at the grocery store, pop them in the microwave and enjoy them in 90 seconds.

You can also find them on the hot rollers at the local Speedway. Recently bought by 7-Eleven, Speedways around the state have received a new addition to their fast-food offerings: the jalapeño cream cheese taquito. Creamy and spicy, salty and a little sweet, it’s my new favorite thing.

But I’ll get to that.

I had no conception of what was considered “good” or “bad” when it came to food when I was young. I mean, I had learned about the now-defunct food pyramid in the early ’90s; that guide to healthy eating was heavily influenced by the food industry, I found out much later, so my elementary-level food education was perhaps skewed from the beginning.

What I did know was what food was available and what tasted good, and that’s how I made the decisions — the decisions that were open to me as a kid, anyway — about what I would eat.

It never occurred to me at that age that any part of eating a meal might one day involve shame.

I remember hearing about the grapefruit diet when I was about 14. At the time, the grapefruit diet, which has apparently been hawked for almost a century, was experiencing a sort of cultural reintroduction. It was at least popular enough to warrant a 1999 parody song by Weird Al Yankovic, set to the tune of the Cherry Poppin’ Daddies’ neo-swing hit “Zoot Suit Riot.”

The diet plan calls for two weeks of eating a grapefruit with every meal and cutting out carbohydrates. The idea was that grapefruits have some kind of magic enzyme that melts away fat; that claim is apparently widely disputed these days.

But to my point. Let me give you a few bars of that Weird Al song I mentioned earlier, which might illustrate the frame of mind I was in when I tried the diet for myself: “Grapefruit Diet/Might seem a little severe/Grapefruit Diet/I’m gettin’ tired of my big fat rear.”

By the time I was 14, it had become clear to me that the shape and size of my own body, which was not particularly thin in my teenage years and is not now, should change. That, at least, was the message I was receiving from the world at large, and even from close friends and loved ones.

This is not shocking news. It’s really not even news, period. So I won’t belabor that point too much.

What I will talk about is what happened when, two days into trying the grapefruit diet at 14, I abruptly stopped trying it. Listen, I really hate grapefruits, and I don’t care what kind of magic enzyme is or isn’t in them — it ain’t for me. (I do enjoy a Fresca soda, which they tell me is grapefruit flavored, but I don’t buy it.)

A friend sat down at the lunch table with me in my high school cafeteria on that third day and noted that I hadn’t brought my lunch, as on the first two days, but was instead munching on a slice of pizza.

“Come on,” she said. “You didn’t even make it a week?”

It was, I think, an innocent question, and it was posed by a young woman who’d been told all the same things about her body that I had been told about mine.

That was the first time, at least as far as I remember, that I felt ashamed about what I put in my mouth to sustain my body.

I was lucky in my college and early adulthood years to be surrounded by friends and roommates, later a loving partner who didn’t give any thought at all to what I ate, and certainly never commented on it. But that one moment in high school settled into the silt at the bottom of my mind and was eventually buried, stuck fast.

It took a long time to find it and dig it out.

People have a lot of feelings about food. When I have friends over, we end up gathered around my little kitchen island 100% of the time, because that’s where I put the food, and food makes us feel good. Especially when we’re with people we love.

People also have a lot of opinions about food, even outside of its nutrional value. What makes a food “good” — or, at least, good enough to be considered worthy of good taste? I can’t tell you that — and a good number of people I know wouldn’t trust my opinion on that, anyway.

Because I love the jalapeño cream cheese taquito at Speedway, and I have recommended it to just about everybody I know. Some are incredulous.

Look, I’m not here to shill for Speedway or 7-Eleven. I’m not suggesting that anyone ignore the bad ethics that keep these multinational companies running — if you can afford to ignore them, that is. Access to food across socioeconomic demographics is a whole other topic this column space is not wide enough to accommodate today.

The purpose of “All I Care to Eat” is, ostensibly, to talk about foods I love that I can get in my own town. By that definition, the taquitos fit the bill.

But when I started writing this column, it was with a different theme in mind: making a small case for a food that many would consider “bad,” either because of its nutritional or culinary value.

Why did I feel like I needed to qualify or rationalize my love for cheese and peppers in a corn wrapper? Why did I feel like folks might judge me harshly for suggesting it?

Why do I still feel like what I eat is tied to whether or not I’m a good person?

Perhaps I haven’t quite totally excavated that shame-filled high school memory from my brain.

And I have to think it’s the same for some of you.

So let me say this: It’s not really about the taquito. But try it, if you’re so inclined.

Your body is yours, and what you choose to nourish it with — or what you have access to in order to nourish it — does not make you a bad person.

No matter what people say.

Eat the dang taquito.

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