It’s summer in America. The sun is shining and people float in inner tubes on lazy lakes while children run through the sprinklers. Others gather around the pool in the late afternoon. Everyone is happy and why not, it’s BBQ Day. Since the 1950’s, the image of the family on the patio has replaced the hearth and home scenes as we moved into the suburbs and the backyard. It can be argued whether or not this is an accurate depiction of modern life, but this new image is our ideal and the backdrop of an endless roll of stock footage used by hundreds of marketing firms every year to sell us things.
This year we are assailed by Burger King’s “BBQ Day” marketing strategy. While Dire Straits sings about the “Walk of Life,” a script slowly appears on the screen.
“Smile America. It’s BBQ Day.”
“A day you look forward to.”
“A day that lightens your mood.”
“A day to enjoy great food and enjoy great company.”
Great food and great company might just be the very definition of barbecue; a word with many meanings that encompasses a style of food and a gathering of people that is distinctly American. Collectively, we seem to have created this image, and yes, it is more than just an image of suburban America. The family gathering for food and companionship is, in my opinion, one of the few truly universal ideas we have as a species.
What Burger King, and that group of faceless ad executives in New York high rises, are selling us isn’t, however, great food or good company. Leave the grill cold and give in to burgers, fries, and a new series of “barbecue” like sandwiches is the message here. After all, who really has time to spend cooking with the family? Parents who lament the loss of connection with their kids can’t complain if this is how they spend dinner time, let alone “BBQ Day”.
When I started writing about barbecue, long ago, I thought of it as a fun and frivolous pursuit; a distraction from the monotony of my then day job. Not long afterward, I received an email from a man looking to purchase a grill for his family. Never having owned one, he needed some direction on what to buy and how to go about putting together a family barbecue. Yes, barbecue is many things. Most purists will tell you it has nothing to do with gas grills and burgers, and they are missing the point. What this man wanted was a way to connect with his two teenage children. He asked, in almost desperation, for the formula to make a Saturday family gathering that might help to hold together his family who had just recently lost a wife and mother. I never thought of the backyard cookout as a frivolous activity again.
Maybe it is this that put such a bad taste in my mouth when I first saw Burger King’s “BBQ Day” commercial. To me, the very idea, that instead of gathering around the grill we should gather in the car for takeout, was worse than distasteful. It was downright un-American; inhuman.
Maybe those lazy and idyllic days of summer are a myth, but isn’t it the mythic that we aspire to? It is too easy to give in to convenience, that greatest of the deadly sins of our time. If you could construct a narrative for your children, wouldn’t it be filled with the summer evenings gathered around the fire? Wouldn’t it be better to take the time and effort to prepare your own BBQ Day, even if it isn’t perfect, instead of getting it from a teenager at a drive up window? Your children won’t remember you driving to Burger King, but they will remember you firing up the grill and the good times spent there.
If there is a universal definition of barbecue, simply put, it is a gathering. A collection of family and friends for a simple meal, stripped away from all the complexities and distractions of our lives. Barbecue isn’t as much a kind of food as it is a party, and it certainly isn’t a flavor from a bottle. Barbecue is us, trying to silence the technology, turning off the cell phones, and getting together in the dark, under the stars for good food and good company. It is our attempt to find the string that connects us to the primitive past, when we sat around the first fires, looking at the stars, and telling the stories that would become the origins of the world we live in today. Burger King. Your grill is on. But so is mine.
You can see the full version of this commercial on YouTube.