With any luck, when the origin myth of the Doritos® Locos Taco is whispered to schoolchildren generations from now, they will know the name Todd Mills. He was an Air Force vet, a former Bill Clinton escort (y’know, the good kind), a father of two, and one among possibly thousands of Americans who dreamed drooly dreams about the marriage between two American icons of chemical gastronomy.
The only difference is that Mills—who passed away on Thanksgiving morning at age 41—did something about it. In recent days, he’s been hailed as a dreamer and a crusader—but what you’ve heard is only half the story.
The saga starts four years ago when Mills wrote a letter to Frito-Lay, the parent company of Doritos, and begged them to consider making a nacho cheese taco shell. (“I know… It’s an amazing thing to ponder,” he scribbled.) What ensued was a heroic tale of fortitude, decency, and tragedy, something of an era long bygone.
After Frito-Lay snubbed him, Mills launched a Facebook page in 2009 called the “Taco Shells made from Doritos Movement.” And with it, a revolution. He Photoshopped renderings of a Doritos shell framed before an adoring crowd at the Louvre; making demands at an Occupy protest; powering Dr. Emmett Brown’s time-traveling DeLorean. Thousands liked the page, the page went viral, and Taco Bell even began commenting on his postings. The Doritos Locos Taco would soon become a reality.
To honor his tireless advocacy, Mills would be flown out to Taco Bell headquarters in Irvine, California. They fed him a steak dinner, introduced Mills to the CEO of Taco Bell, and gave him a sample of the new Doritos Locos Taco from the test kitchen. Shortly after the product finally launched in March 2012, Mills posted an image of a Doritos Locos Taco shell at a podium on the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln aircraft carrier beneath the banner that read Mission Accomplished. It had been.
Fast forward to December 2013. Over 600 million Doritos Locos Tacos sold. Over a billion dollars in taco sales netted. 15,000 jobs created, give or take some math. The Doritos Locos Taco is so popular, the shell has been reversed engineered to be sold in chip form by Frito-Lay.
As news of Mills’ passing cascaded across the internet, he was bestowed with honorifics like mastermind, creator, visionary, and inventor of the Doritos Locos Taco.
But this wasn’t the first challenge to the Taco Bell authorship narrative.
Back in May, a guy named Gary Cole (a federal inmate, not the smarmy boss from Office Space) reportedly tried to sue from his super-max prison cell in Florence, Colorado, claiming that he had written his idea for the Doritos Locos Taco shell in a letter that had been stolen by the postal service and sold to Taco Bell and Frito-Lay. (“Get in line,” said every person who’s ever been stoned.) Unsurprisingly, the story didn’t get far.
This week, a chorus is suggesting that Todd Mills had inhabited the unsung role of Antonio Meucci to Alexander Graham (Taco) Bell. Others are lamenting the fact that the unimaginable success of Mills’ dream taco hadn’t made him or the family he left behind rich. Delicately, Taco Bell set out to correct the record that Mills hadn’t been the Donald Rumsfeld of the Doritos Locos Taco, but merely its Charles Krauthammer. Here was the statement:
“We know this is a tragic time for Todd’s family. He was a huge Taco Bell fan. He was passionate about the Doritos Locos Taco, and although he did not invent it, he founded a Facebook page to drum up support. In light of his passion, we invited him to be one of the first to try it. He became a true friend of the brand, so when we learned of his ill health, we made a $1,000 donation towards his medical expenses. We will miss Todd very much and our hearts are with his family and friends in this difficult time.”
Over at “Taco Shells made from Doritos Movement” and “Tacos for Todd,” a new companion tribute page, debate is now raging about whether Taco Bell and Frito-Lay owes the Mills family more. Among the complaints, there is some (very) sincere disbelief about why the massive corporations involved in the creation of a chemically-addictive taco would ever not give money to such a seemingly deserving party.
But this is where Mills’ legacy goes supreme. Mills, for his part, had never sought cash or credit; he was just excited that his dream came true. In an interview with a local paper last year, he offered: “I’ve never once said that I deserved any sort of compensation, I can’t be the first person to think of this. On the other hand: If they wanted to send me a big taco check, that would be alright.”
If you’ve ever eaten a Doritos Locos Taco then you already know what it means to be consumed by something you’re consuming. The alloy orange shell. The contrast of cold cheese, lettuce, and warm demi-beef. The flavor-union of childhood and adolescence, spiced with the shame of adulthood.
We may never know if Mills invented it or not; we know what Taco Bell has to say. But when the legend becomes fact, we are supposed to print the legend. Four years ago, Todd Mills was eating a taco and saw a Doritos commercial on television. After his funeral on Monday, his friends went to Taco Bell.
Adam Chandler is a staff writer at Tablet Magazine and is in the pocket of Big Burger. He lives in Brooklyn near Choire’s doppelgänger. Follow him @allmychandler.