The McRib is back. If you feel like you’re getting déjà vu from reading that sentence, you’re not wrong. The fast food item is truly the Lazarus of the McDonald’s menu, repeatedly rising from the dead. Roughly every November for the past few years the McRib has popped up in select McDonald’s across the U.S., for a limited time of course. This week it’s being rolled out, yet again, in Southern California and Hawaii, with more locations on the way, only to retreat back to the grave for the rest of the year.
But it wasn’t always this way. The barbecue pork sandwich was an initial flop when McDonalds introduced the item in 1981. The sandwich was the brainchild of Roger Mandigo, a meat scientist from Nebraska (yes, such a job exists) and Rene Arend, a Luxembourg-born, French-trained chef from the Drake Hotel. Arend was lured away from working at the upper-class Whitehall Club upon meeting McDonald’s founder Ray Kroc in the 1970s. Kroc offered him a job as McDonald’s first executive chef in hopes of increasing the menu’s offerings. It was a challenge that could not be turned down. It was then that he came up with the McRib, a product patterned after his favorite South Carolina barbecue dish, but it was Mandigo who helped perfect the creation by inventing its absurd ribless-ribbed shape.
Such intense meat-restructuring is done through the process of comminution. Here’s how Mandigo described it in a 1995 interview:
“Restructured meat products are commonly manufactured by using lower-valued meat trimmings reduced in size by comminution (flaking, chunking, grinding, chopping or slicing). The comminuted meat mixture is mixed with salt and water to extract salt-soluble proteins. These extracted proteins are critical to produce a “glue” which binds muscle pieces together. These muscle pieces may then be reformed to produce a “meat log” of specific form or shape. The log is then cut into steaks or chops which, when cooked, are similar in appearance and texture to their intact muscle counterparts.”
It’s not unlike the McNugget (its far more successful kin, which was introduced nationwide in 1983), in which irregular cuts of meats, muscles, and other unmarketable animal parts, like hearts and tripe, are fused together to create a Franken-food of sorts. In other words, no part of the McRib is actually a rib.
The McRib’s initial run only lasted four years. After tepid sales, it was pulled from the menu in 1985 and only returned periodically for promotions. In 1994 it was sold as a tie-in to “The Flintstones” live-action movie and remained on the menu in certain international locations, like Germany, where it sold very well.
In the years that followed, given its scarcity and mish-mash of ingredients, the McRib took on a mythic quality. One popular urban legend claimed the sandwich was made of kangaroo meat. The sandwich was even parodied on a “Simpsons” episode in which Homer goes on an epic quest for “Ribwich” at his favorite fast food chain, Krusty Burger. It was also the butt of jokes on sitcoms from “Roseanne” to “The Big Bang Theory.” Proof that even when it wasn’t available for consumption, the McRib maintained its status as both a punchline and the holy grail of fast food sandwiches.
But 2005 tolled a death knell (or so we thought) for the beloved sandwich. McDonald’s claimed it would be permanently removed following a “McRib Farewell Tour.” However, an online petition to “Save the McRib” on behalf of the “Boneless Pig Farmers of America” soon emerged. But, unsurprisingly, it was just a surreptitious marketing ploy—the website was actually registered to McDonald’s. But this manufactured outrage worked. It naturally resulted in the “McRib Farewell Tour II” in 2006 and yet a third in 2007 in which Mickey D’s sold over 30 million sandwiches containing over 7 million pounds of meat.
Nearly every year since has seen a similar cycle. The sandwich would come back to resounding hysteria, usually around November, and then leave a month or two later. Which is probably why you’ve seen the same headlines, year after year. From a business perspective, playing hard to get has proven an incredible tactic for McDonalds. The McRib marketing strategy bundles the appeal of exclusivity and scarcity with a seasonal approach. But one question remains. Why November? The timing of the roll-out usually correlates to pork availability, giving the lowest price point options to consumers.
The success of the McRib as an annual favorite puts it on par with the Shamrock Shake, at least in terms of the giddy anticipation it generates. It shows no sign of stopping, which means we’ll likely be seeing the food appear (and disappear) for years to come. No bones about it.
Header image courtesy of McDonalds.