After an annus horribilis for the ages, the last month of 2020 has finally—finally!—brought us four magic words bringing joy, hope, and salvation to a restless world.
The. McRib. Is. Back. (What, you were expecting “Vaccine authorized for coronavirus”?)
On Dec. 2, McDonald’s reintroduced its pork sandwich nationwide for the first time in eight years. The McRib’s reappearance prompted cheers from fans, who had developed websites dedicated to finding the savory sandwich, and questions from others who don’t understand the commotion. To both connoisseurs and critics, the McRib brings a welcome respite, however brief, from the horrors of this pandemic year.
Military Technology on a Bun
First introduced in 1981, McDonald’s used Army technology to come up with its McRib, which contains no actual ribs. The Army wanted an efficient way to feed troops cheaply, by using less-popular cuts of meat. An Army contractor and eventual inductee into the Meat Industry Hall of Fame—yes, such a thing exists—developed a process that used trimmings to create “restructured” meat.
While the research contractor, Roger Mandigo, originally created a patty in the shape of a pork chop, McDonald’s came up with the idea of forming its processed meat into a set of ersatz pork ribs. Two years after the company’s head chef, Rene Arend, helped create Chicken McNuggets (another “restructured” meat), demand for the McNuggets from franchisees proved so great that McDonald’s invented the McRib to give other locations access to a new product.
Demand for the McRib floundered at first, and McDonald’s removed it from the menu in 1985. Since then, the company has returned it from time to time, often in select locations only; this year represents the first national appearance since 2012.
Analysts have offered various theories for the McRib’s sporadic appearances, ranging from McDonald’s inducing scarcity in the market for pork. At the time of a 1982 article, McDonald’s had purchased up to 60 percent of the available supply of pork shoulder every week, while offering the McRib in only about a third of its U.S. locations. It seems entirely possible that always offering the McRib would raise the price of pork shoulder to a level that McDonald’s, or customers, would find the sandwich prohibitively costly.
Despite, or perhaps because of, its limited availability, the McRib has developed a cult of admirers nationally, who search for locations offering the product. McDonald’s marketing department has egged on the McRib mythology, organizing a “McRib Farewell Tour” in 2005, and creating a phony website for the “Boneless Pig Farmers Association of America” designed to save the McRib.
Other programs have also glorified the McRib, but a 2003 episode of “The Simpsons” that parodied the sandwich cemented its unique status in American culture:
Upon tasting the “Ribwich,” Homer abandons his family for most of the episode, to go traveling across the country with other “Ribheads” for cities in which the sandwich will appear.
Worth the Hype?
Given the publicity, this observer—who has not eaten the sandwich in decades—went to McDonald’s to see if the McRib lived up to its billing. A Twitter video of McRib patties in their frozen and processed state didn’t look too appetizing, but would the prepared sandwich have greater appeal?
A recent visit to a local branch yielded a sandwich with a stately appearance. Housed in its own cardboard container—no second-class paper wrapper for this sandwich—its oblong shape and cornmeal-dusted roll provide a distinct contrast to McDonald’s hamburgers, and most other fast-food offerings:
In taste, in many ways it’s all about the pickles. The meat patty proved juicy enough by itself, although (as one might expect) the heavily processed product contained none of the chewy texture one might expect from pulled pork barbecue, the genre the McRib seeks to emulate.
The traditional McDonald’s barbecue sauce that enrobes the McRib provides extra doses of sweetness and smokiness—both at once, and a bit too much at that. And while the onions give the limp patty some crunchiness, if added in copious doses—as in my case—their pungency dominates the sandwich.
On the other hand, the pickles have none of the onions’ pungency, and more of the vinegary kick the barbecue sauce lacks. Classic Carolina barbecue uses pork (often pork shoulder—the meat used in the McRib) and a vinegar-based sauce. Adding pickles to the McRib hearkens back to one of the oldest barbecue traditions in the United States, and (to borrow from Emeril Lagasse) kicks the sandwich up a notch.
‘For a Limited Time Only’
As a sandwich, the McRib meets or exceeds the standard fast-food offering—albeit a low bar to clear in many cases. As both a marketing gimmick and cultural phenomenon, its “Now you see it—now you don’t” availability makes it without peer.
All of this makes it worth a trip to the nearest McDonald’s drive-thru while one has the chance—because people who don’t catch this “McRib Farewell Tour” may have to wait quite a while for the next one.