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John Green reviews a 17,000-year-old painting and the Taco Bell breakfast menu.

Thanks to Simple Contacts for sponsoring this episode: simplecontacts.com/anthro

 (00:00) to (02:00) Hello, and welcome to The Anthropocene Reviewed, a podcast where we review different facets of the human-centered planet on a five-star scale. Today I’ll be reviewing a 17,000-year-old painting and the Taco Bell Breakfast Menu.


Let’s start with the painting. So, if you’ve ever been or had a child, you will likely already be familiar with hand stencils. They were the first figurative art made by both our kids—somewhere between the ages of two and three, my children spread the fingers of one hand out across a piece of paper, and then with the help of a parent traced their five fingers. I remember my son’s face as he lifted his hand and looked absolutely shocked to see the shape of his hand still on the paper, a semi-permanent record of himself.

I am extremely happy that my children are no longer three, and yet to look at their little hands from those early artworks is to be inundated with a strange, soul-splitting joy. Those pictures remind me that they are not just growing up but also growing away from me, running toward their own lives. But of course, that is meaning I am applying to their hand stencils. And that complicated relationship between art and its viewers is never more fraught than when we are looking deeply into the past.

 In September of 1940, an 18-year-old mechanic named Marcel Ravidat was walking his dog Robot in the countryside of southwestern France when the dog disappeared down a hole. Robot eventually returned, but the next day Ravidat went to the spot with three friends to explore the hole. And after quite a bit of digging, they discovered a cave with walls covered with paintings, including over 900 paintings of animals—horses, stags, bison, and also species that are now extinct, including a woolly rhinoceros.  (02:00) to (04:00) The paintings were astonishingly detailed and vivid with red, yellow, and black paint made from pulverized mineral pigments that were usually blown through a narrow tube—possibly a hollowed bone—onto the walls of the cave. It would eventually be established that these artworks were at least 17,000 years old.


Two of the boys who visited the cave that day were so profoundly moved by the art they saw that they camped outside the cave to protect it for over a year. After World War II, the French government took over protection of the site, and the cave was opened to the public in 1948. When Picasso saw the cave paintings on a visit that year, he reportedly said, “We have invented nothing.”

There are many mysteries at Lascaux: why, for instance, are there no paintings of reindeer, which we know were the primary source of food for the Paleolithic humans who lived in that cave? Why were they so much more focused on painting animals than painting human forms? Why are certain areas of the cave filled with images, including pictures on the ceiling that required the building of scaffolding to create, while other areas have only a few paintings? And were the paintings spiritual—here are our sacred animals—or were they practical—here is a guide to some of the animals that might kill you?

 Aside from the animals, there are nearly a thousand abstract signs and shapes we cannot interpret, and also several “negative hand stencils,” as they are known by art historians. These are the paintings that most interest me—they were created by pressing one hand with fingers splayed against the wall of the cave, and then blowing pigment, leaving the area around the hand painted. Similar hand stencils have been found in caves around the world—from Indonesia to Spain to Australia to the Americas to Africa, we have found these memories of hands from 15 or 30 or even 40 thousand years ago.  (04:00) to (06:00) These hand stencils remind us of how different life was in the distant past—amputations, likely from frost bite, are common in Europe, and so you often see negative hand stencils with three or four fingers. And life was short and difficult. As many as a quarter of women died in childbirth; around fifty percent of children died before the age of five. But they also remind us that the humans of the past were as human as we are. Their hands indistinguishable from ours. These communities hunted and gathered, and there were no large caloric surpluses, so every healthy person would have had to contribute to the acquisition of food and water—and yet somehow, they still made time to create art—almost as if art isn’t optional for humans.


We see all kinds of hands stenciled on cave walls—children and adults—but almost always the fingers are spread, like my kids’ hand stencils. I’m no Jungian, but it’s fascinating and a little strange that so many Paleolithic humans, who couldn’t possibly have had any contact with each other, created the same paintings the same way—paintings that we are still making.

 But then again what the Lascaux art means to me is likely very different from whatever they meant to the people who made it. Some academics theorize the hand stencils were part of hunting rituals; then there’s always the possibility that the hand was just a convenient model situated at the end of the wrist. To me though, the hand stencils at Lascaux say, “I was here.” They say, “You are not new.” And because they are negative prints surrounded by red pigment, they also look to me like something out of a horror movie—like ghostly hands reaching up from some bloody background.  (06:00) to (08:00) They remind me that, as Alice Walker wrote, “All history is current.”


The Lascaux cave has been closed to the public for many years now—too many contemporary humans breathing inside of it led to the growth of mold and lichens, which has damaged some of the art. Just the act of looking at something can ruin it, I guess. But tourists can still visit an imitation cave, called Lascaux II, in which the artwork has been meticulously re-created. Humans making fake cave art to save real cave art may feel like Peak Anthropocene Behavior, but I have to confess that even though I am a jaded and cynical semi-professional reviewer of human activity, I actually find it overwhelmingly hopeful that four teenagers and a dog named Robot discovered a cave with seventeen thousand year old handprints, that the cave was so overwhelmingly beautiful that two of those teenagers devoted themselves to its protection, and that when we humans became a danger to that cave’s beauty, we agreed to stopped going. Lascaux is there. You cannot visit. You can go to the fake cave we’ve built, and see nearly identical hand stencils, but you will know: This is not the thing itself, but a shadow of it. This is a handprint, but not a hand. This is a memory that you cannot return to—all of which makes the cave very much like the past it represents. I give the handprint stencils at Lascaux four and a half stars.


 In a moment, we’ll turn the Taco Bell Breakfast Menu, but first: You know Rene Descartes, the French philosopher who famously declared I think therefore I am?  (08:00) to (10:00) He was also an early contact lens designer—back in 1636, he proposed affixing a glass testtube-like structure directly to the cornea, although the design was a little unrealistic as it would've prevented blinking. These days, of course, contacts are amazing, but the process of acquiring them often isn’t—with Simple Contacts, however, you can renew your prescription and order contacts quickly and inexpensively. I should note this is not a replacement for your full eye health exam, but without ever leaving the comfort of your house, you can take a five-minute vision test and renew your prescription and get contacts sent to you. And with over 3,000 5-star ratings in the app store, Simple Contacts is an astonishingly straightforward and inexpensive way to get your contacts. Go to simplecontacts.com/anthro to get $30 off your first order right now and live the dream that Rene Descartes imagined for you; once again, that’s simple contacts.com/anthro. Now back to the show.


A few weeks ago, a listener to this podcast named Stephen emailed me to ask if I would consider reviewing the Taco Bell Breakfast Menu, which seemed like a good idea, albeit one that would require me to eat a fair bit at Taco Bell, which is a fast-food restaurant chain with over 7,000 restaurants around the world that was founded by a Marine Corps veteran named Glen Bell.

 Glen did not start out as a taco guy. After serving in World War II, he returned to his native southern California to seek his fortune in the burger business—he ran a restaurant in San Bernardino called Bell’s Drive-in in 1948. His business did okay, but across the street, a family-owned Mexican restaurant called the Mitla Café was selling lots of tacos, including its famous hard-shell tacos. (10:00) to (12:00) Bell would often eat at the Mitla Café and then go back to his hamburger stand and try to reverse engineer these popular tacos, but he could never figure it out. So eventually, he became friends with the family that owned the Mitla, and they showed him the recipe. Bell started making tacos soon thereafter.


Side note: The Mitla Café was the setting for an important moment in American history—in the early 1940s, public pools and other services were segregated in San Bernardino; Latinos couldn’t swim at the pool, or sit in certain sections of movies theaters; some businesses had “Whites Only” signs, and many schools were segregated. In a series of meetings held at the Mitla Café, Latino church and civic leaders developed a plan to sue the city of San Bernardino, and they won—which became one of the earliest victories in the fight against segregation; in fact the case, Lopez vs. Seccombe, was cited by the Supreme Court in its famous Brown vs. the Board of Education decision that found segregated schools to be illegal.

We’ll return to Taco Bell momentarily, but one last note about the Mitla Café: it’s still open, and today is run by the fourth generation of the family who founded it. I’ve eaten there, actually, and it will not surprise you to learn that their tacos are vastly, incalculably superior to Taco Bell tacos. But of course, Taco Bell isn’t really in the business of being good—it aims to be good enough, and consistent, and inexpensive.

Right, so of course the recipe for Taco Bell tacos was stolen by a white restaurant owner from a local center for Latino community and activism. But the owners of the Mitla Café have never publicly expressed any resentment toward Bell—one member of the family, Irene Montano, magnanimously said of him, “He was a self-starter, and he did push those tacos.”

 Indeed, after opening the first Taco Bell in Downey, California in 1962, new franchises of Taco Bell spread rapidly throughout the west coast.  (12:00) to (14:00) Back then, the menu was extremely simple—tacos, tostadas, burritos, frijoles, and chili burgers—and everything cost 19 cents—around a buck fifty in today’s money. People loved it: By 1967, there were 100 Taco Bells, and there were 868 when Bell sold his company to PepsiCo in 1978 for 125 million dollars.


Selling Taco Bell allowed Glen to pursue the true passion of his life—a quarter-scale model train adventure park called Bell Gardens. Bell was a lifelong model train enthusiast—but the park, which had no rides that weren’t quarter-scale model trains, went bankrupt after a few years.

I mention all of this because I think it’s important to understand that Glen Bell was not, like, passionate about Mexican food. He saw an opportunity in a marketplace, and he filled it. I’m not trying to bash Taco Bell—I had many enjoyable meals there in my younger and less nutrition-oriented days, and per dollar spent, Taco Bell offers more caloric energy than almost any other restaurant. A Big Mac at McDonald’s delivers about 1.45 calories per penny spent; a Taco Bell Beefy Fritos burrito offers an astonishing 4.26 calories per penny.

 Also, I recently ate a Taco Bell Beefy Fritos burrito under the guise of research for this review, and for about five minutes after eating it, I felt almost euphoric. It was flavorful, an intoxicating mix of crunchy and chewy, and strangely sweet. The beef was stringy, the tortilla sub-optimal, and I suspect I would be horrified by a thorough accounting of the environmental and sociopolitical costs of the Beefy Fritos burrito, but still, for those five minutes I felt pleasantly and entirely satiated. T (14:00) to (16:00) Ten minutes after that, of course, I began to feel extremely unwell—but that's down to my generally weak constitution rather than any fault of the food itself.


All I’m saying is that Taco Bell is not, like, a mission-driven institution. It seeks to turn a profit. And that’s why I find it so fascinating that Taco Bell didn't serve breakfast until 2012. Burger King served its first breakfast in 1979; McDonald’s introduced the Egg McMuffin way back in 1972. Maybe Taco Bell was late to breakfast because they didn’t want to re-create actual Mexican breakfast food, which is excellent but bears very little resemblance to the hash browns and cinnamon-flavored donut holes that Taco Bell eventually released as part of their breakfast menu.

All of which goes to show again that Taco Bell as a company is not and never has been interested in Mexican food, except for what could be efficiently appropriated from it, which is why the taste profile of its breakfast menu more closely resembles that of Burger King than anything at the Mitla Café. I thought the donut holes were good, but it’s hard to mess up fried dough. I found the grilled breakfast burrito fiesta potato to be, like its name, a bit over-complicated. The standout to me was the Breakfast Crunchwrap, which wraps hash browns, bacon, eggs, and cheese into a grilled tortilla. And that wasn’t bad. But mostly, my Taco Bell breakfast was what Taco Bell’s frantic and relentless marketing campaigns seem to fear the most: it was boring.

 I find it revealing that while there are Taco Bells in Romania and Australia and Brazil, you won’t find one in Mexico. They’ve tried twice—in 1992 and 2007—but both times, the restaurants faced the same fate as Glen Bell’s railroad adventure land.  (16:00) to (17:52) You can add a vowel to the end of every menu item, and you can make your catchphrase Yo Quiero Taco Bell, but if you can’t sell your tacos in Mexico, they ain’t Mexican. I give the Taco Bell breakfast menu two stars.


Thanks for listening to this episode of The Anthropocene Reviewed, which was written by me, produced by Rosianna Halse Rojas, and edited by Stan Muller, and thanks to Stephen for suggesting a review of the Taco Bell breakfast menu. If you’d like to suggest a topic for review, or just say hi, you can email us at anthropocenereviewed@gmail.com, or find us on Twitter or Facebook. One last thing: if you’d like to help our podcast, please tell your friends about it, or write a review. We really appreciate your feedback. We’re going to be taking a month off, because this infrequent podcast isn’t infrequent enough, but then we’ll be back with more reviews, you know, at some point.

My favorite fact that didn’t make it into today’s reviews: Gidget, the Taco Bell Chihuahua spokesdog who starred in the company’s mid-90s Yo Quiero Taco Bell ads went on to play Bruiser’s Mom in the 2003 film Legally Blonde 2. Thanks again for listening to The Anthropocene Reviewed; we'll leave you today with the audio of Gidget’s first Taco Bell ad. [https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M8sZ1DWsAHE]

[Latin Music - "Yo quiero taco bell. Now you can get two tacos for just 99 cents. Want some?"]