Thursday, February 19, 2009

The Cult of the McRib

The Cult of the McRib
In search of the legendary bone-free porky treat that inspired a national obsession.
By Adam Winer

Chicago is shivering beneath the first snowflakes of winter as my rental car skirts the area that was once the meat packing capital of the country. The sky is gray, the trees are bare, the air is raw. But as I make one final turn I find myself basking in the celestial glow of the Golden Arches, beneath which are the three magic words I’ve flown some 800 miles to see: MCRIBS ARE BACK!

McDonald’s McRib is a sandwich of legend. The heavenly blend of pork patty, barbecue sauce, and bun is, to devotees, so addictive that songs have been written about it, Internet shrines erected to it, and TV shows dedicated to it. Yet McDonald’s has made the McRib a limited edition, available only in certain areas of the country for part of the year. It is rarely seen, yet frequently sought and cultishly worshiped. It is the Holy Grail on a bun.

Because I live in New York, where the sandwich is nearly impossible to come by, it has been 15 years since I’ve eaten a McRib. So what to do when McDonald’s offers not only to divulge where it can be found but also to provide access to the men behind the McRib?

It’s time for a McRoadtrip.

I begin my pork-a-thon in Oak Brook, Illinois, where the McDonald’s corporate headquarters is based and where the local franchise sits a mere 100 yards from Ronald’s corner office. My McRib arrives dressed with pickle slices, an even sprinkling of onion arcs, and a healthy dose of barbecue sauce. Literally shaking with anticipation, I take a bite. It’s delicious. The precise appropriation of barbecue sauce per­fectly complements the light saltiness of the rib-shaped meat patty, bringing out its porky grace notes. The pickles burst forth with a sourness that contrasts with the sauce’s sweetness. And the onions rush in to leave the palate with a robust kick. “The more taste sen­sations you can have in a product, the more interesting it is to your tongue,” says Dan Coudreau, head chef for McDonald’s in the United States. “All those savory, salty, sweet, and sour flavors work together. It’s a classic taste combination with barbecue.”

Initially test-marketed in 1981, the McRib was the brainchild of McDonald’s first ex­ec­u­tive chef, Rene Arend, who’d been plucked from the kitchen of a local luxury hotel and tasked with increasing the franchise’s menu options. Arend’s most industry-altering achievement would prove to be the creation of the Chicken McNugget in 1979. And it was the success of the nugget that necessitated the immediate invention of the McRib. “The McNuggets were so well received that every franchise wanted them,” says Arend, now an 80-year-old retiree living in Chicago. “There wasn’t a system to supply enough chicken. We had to come up with something to give the other franchises as a new product. So the McRib came about because of the shortage of chickens.”

The McRib’s direct inspiration was Southern BBQ. “I had just come back from Charleston, South Carolina, where I ate sandwiches made from pulled pork,” Arend remembers. “I said to myself, Something with that flavor should really go over.”

But instead of pulling his pork, Arend decided to give the meat its legendarily absurd shape: Even though it contains no bones, the patty is molded to resemble a miniature rack of ribs. “Some thought, Why not just make it round?” recalls Arend. “It would’ve been easier. But I wanted it to look like a slab of ribs.”

About sixty miles southwest of Chicago, at a Mickey D’s in Kankakee, Illinois, the booths are packed with sauce-stained customers. “I don’t normally go to McDonald’s, but when I saw McRibs were back on the menu, I was like, ‘I gotta get me one,’” says Oliver Corpuz, a 36-year-old attorney. “I’m not even sure if it’s all really pork in there. It’s some sort of extruded meat product.”

Contrary to what its name implies, there is very little actual rib meat in a McRib. “Primar­ily, it’s shoulder meat,” explains Rob Cannell, director of McDonald’s U.S. supply chain. “The McRib is made in large processing plants—lots of stainless steel, a number of production lines, and these long cryogenic freezers. The pork meat is chopped up, then seasoned, then formed into that shape that looks like a rib back. Then we flash-freeze it. The whole process from fresh pork to frozen McRib takes about 45 minutes.”

Since the McRib is a promotional sandwich, as opposed to a full-time menu item, each individual restaurant gets to decide whether or not to stock it. Hence the scarcity that has made it the Halley’s Comet of fast-food entrees. McDonald’s has alerted me which Illinois lo­cations are currently carrying the McRib, so I make a number of stops as night falls. But for the average fan there is the McRib Locator Map at, a tracking Web site created by Minneapolis-area meteorologist and hardcore pork enthusiast Alan Klein.

“My inspiration came a year ago when some friends of mine were having a hard time finding McRibs,” explains Klein. On his map visitors can report locations where they’ve found a McRib, allowing rib-heads everywhere to benefit from the shared tracking info. As I stop for the night in Urbana-Champaign, I plug all my finds into the site’s map—the better to help others on pork pilgrimages.

The McRib’s place in the pop culture firmament was solidly established with the 12th episode of the 14th season of The Simpsons. In it Homer becomes addicted to Krusty Burger’s new “Ribwich,” which is made from a mysterious animal Krusty refuses to identify. Obviously, Homer has no choice but to abandon his family to tour the country with other rib addicts. The gorging stops only after Krusty announces that the’ve eaten the mysterious animal into extinction. “Homer would follow it around like people followed the Grateful Dead around,” says Simpsons executive pro­ducer Al Jean. “We asked Bob Seger to sing the commercial for the Ribwich, but he declined.” The McRib has repeatedly popped up in Letterman’s Top 10 Lists (Top 10 Surprises in Clinton’s State of the Union Address: 2. If reelected, would bring back the McRib Sandwich) and was in an episode of Adult Swim’s The Boondocks in which the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. returns to the modern day and discov­ers the wonders of processed pork patties. “Oh, snap! No they didn’t!” exclaims King. “A boneless rib sandwich. What will they think of next?”

“The McRib has all the trappings of a true cultural phenomenon,” says Chris Sivori, a former video game tester in Austin, Texas who chron­icled his coworkers’ annual McRib eating challenge on his Web site, “It’s so mysterious. A bone-shaped thing that has no bones in it? That’s out of control.”

After the McRib rolled out nationwide in 1982, McDonald’s learned the sandwich worked best as a limited-time offering. Its restricted availability has become a marketing tool. A few years back McDonald’s even launched a highly publicized Farewell Tour, announcing that the McRib was about to disappear forever, only to bring it back the following year for another Farewell Tour. “The McRib was like the Who,” chef Coudreaut admits. McDonald’s still sold 30 million of them in 2007, totaling more than seven million pounds of pig meat.

Driving through St. Louis, a billboard over the horizon announces mcrib: makes moist towelettes feel wanted, and indeed the city’s franchises have a predilection for heavy saucing. As I down one last sandwich before heading home, I leave a glob of sauce in the box and a mound of soiled napkins on the tray. The experience leaves me feeling oddly content.

On my way to the St. Louis airport to fly back to New York, I buy four final McRibs and shove them into my carry-on bag. Somewhere over Ohio, I reach for my bag to sneak out a midflight snack. As I open the McRib container, its aroma of pork and lukewarm sauce pervades the cabin. The middle-aged woman stuck sitting next to me looks visibly horrified. But her husband one seat over? I’m going to categorize him as envious. Yes, you can smell it in the air: The McRib is back.

Sandwich Cemetery

For every McRib, a ton of items end up in that big drive-through in the sky.

McDonald’s (1985)
A container that separated the warm patty from the cool veggies. Genius! The jaunty ad starring Jason Alexander was just a bonus.

Chicken Littles
KFC (1987)
The sky began to fall when KFC introduced these mini-sandwiches. Seems fans don’t want to be reminded of White Castle’s Slyders.

Bell Beefer
Taco Bell (c. 1970)
There are two lessons to be learned from this monstrosity: 1. Taco Bell should stick to tacos. 2. Pick a name that’s at least vaguely appetizing.

Fire-Grilled Salads
Burger King (2004)
This edible oxymoron included a “specially designed pouch” with hot chicken to be poured over the chilled greens.


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