In the past year or so, I have had the opportunity to meet and experience a vast variety of inspiring food, environmental, and agricultural people and places. I met small-farmers in Ethiopia experimenting with pit composting instead of synthetic fertilizers. I shared meals with activists and writers in the sustainable food movement like Tom Philpott and Anna Lappé. Perhaps most exciting has been the increasing interest in sustainable food and agriculture throughout this country and among my family and friends. Helping my parents start composting, sharing books with friends, and watching the enthusiasm for a “Farmer in Chief” left me hopeful and excited at the end of 2008.
My vision came to a screeching halt when I saw a television ad during the holidays that left me laughing: Burger King trounces around the world feeding Whoppers to unsuspecting indigenous peoples in hopes of spreading the gospel of fast food. What a great parody, I thought! Who could have thought up such an ironic idea? And as the website for Whopper Virgins flashed on the screen, I had a sinking feeling that, like those high-fructose corn syrup ads, perhaps this Burger King film was no parody.
It turns out that the ad was actually an excerpt of a longer seven-minute film. The very concept of this idea — flying around the world, feeding hamburgers to people who have never eaten hamburgers — is in itself strange. For the first half of the film, the crew travels to Romania where they feed utterly confused people Whoppers and Big Macs from nearby restaurant locations. Strangely enough, it seems like the same number of people has no preference or prefers the Big Mac as compared to the Whopper.
Frankly, I don’t see the point. Is this supposed to make me want to go to Burger King? Interestingly enough, throughout the entire film not a single person eats more than a few bites of his or her burger. Perhaps they intuitively knew how ridiculous the entire concept is.
Reality aside, the film attempts to romanticize fast food as the only real American food culture. They throw around phrases like “culinary culture,” “appetizing burger culture,” and “phenomenon” as if every American wakes up in the morning, throws two burgers in the frying pan, and bows down to worship Ronald McDonald and that creepy Burger King guy. While the film aims to achieve some type of artistic cross between adventure and food documentary, they fail completely at doing so.
When the crew flies to Thailand and Greenland to spread the burger gospel, they bring along their own portable Burger King grill, flown in by a helicopter. I don’t even want to think about how they got the ingredients for a Whopper to such remote places. But as the film progresses and the crew continues to share Whopper goodness with the world, the real irony begins. The Americans offer up Whoppers and many people actually refuse to eat them. One man in Greenland actually professes that he likes his seal meat better. And when the locals offer up their food — colorful homemade dishes piping hot and full of vegetables and rice — the American crew devours it eagerly. I never once see any member of the American crew take a single bite of a Whopper.
What is the point of this film? Is Burger King testing markets in Greenland? Do they think Americans are going to buy Whoppers because a woman in Thailand said she liked them? And what about the health and climate impacts of this type of food? I doubt that the crew took the time to tell them that if they actually ate the whole Whopper they consumed 40 grams of fat. They also probably failed to mention the greenhouse gas emissions tied to animal production (18 percent of all global greenhouse gas emissions according to the U.N.) or the other environmental pollution problems associated with mass-produced animals. And I wonder if they bothered to note that the beef they were eating was probably confined in its own feces for the better part of its life.
Don’t get me wrong — I love ethnic food, and I think that sharing food and recipes are some of the positive aspects of growing inter-cultural relationships. But what’s so disheartening about this film is the presumption that America has nothing better to offer. This film emphasizes the already hardened stereotype that all Americans are fat people and eat fast food. It is an insult to the American culinary traditions to suggest that our hamburgers are the only food traditions we can outsource. What about our New England seafood, Southern Cajun, and Tex-Mex cuisines? What about our burgeoning farmers markets, young farmers, and urban gardens? I hate to think that the only image school children in Romania have of the United States is a Big Mac and a Whopper.