This week, the biggest names in food blogging have been breathlessly reminding us that the McDonald's McRib sandwich is available yet again, for the month of November. The boneless sandwich with "rib" in its name, introduced in 1981, was never one of the chain's big hits; sales suffered, and the sandwich was officially "retired" in 1985. It returned several times in the 1990s, for promotional movie tie-ins, and on the regional level in barbecue-friendlier states.
Rumors about the sandwich abounded each time it would reappear. Rumors that it was made of kangaroo meat. That it was only introduced seasonally, or during the heady boom times of a pork surplus. But everyone could agree that it just wasn't very good.
Then, something happened. McDonald's very quietly did nothing to squash the whispers surrounding its sandwich. It allowed the McRib to be a mystery. It didn't list its ingredients, the way it did with other products. It was very upfront about the fact that some people simply wouldn't like it. And with each "limited-time" reintroduction, the marketing got a little smarter.
The last time it was "officially retired" in the late '90s, there was a "farewell tour" so that everyone could say goodbye. During the tour, McDonald's also quietly launched its McRib.com website, a clumsy attempt at viral marketing masquerading as a petition to "save" the sandwich.
And we all bought into it: Authentic independent websites began springing up, like the McRib Locator, and before long, McDonald's attempts to create cultlike status for the product turned into an actual cult. Even Saveur magazine got excited about it, running a recipe for a decidedly more highbrow version of the McRib, using homemade barbecue sauce and braised pork belly.
This year, the McRib once again was trotted out to much fanfare, and to introduce a monthlong 5% profit boost for McDonald's. After being whipped into a frenzy by all the attention it received, both from food bloggers and the mainstream media, we knew that it was time to try one.
At first glance, we were impressed by how much the sandwich actually looked like its picture. The only difference was that the actual sandwich is doused, nay, dipped in barbecue sauce. It's also surprisingly huge, about the same dimensions as a chicken sandwich from Burger King.
In fact, the bun owes a serious debt to Burger King's starchy white oblong bun, with just a hint of a cornmel-dusted top crust, and a very light interior. The "rib" section, an ungodly chemical stew of robotically destroyed pig parts, smoke-flavored, dyed with fake grill marks and then, absurdly, molded with "rib" shapes on top, is chewy and satisfying, provided you are willing to accept its very existence. If you are willing, however, to accept the Big Mac as a "hamburger," it shouldn't be too much of a stretch to convince yourself that this is "pork." The previously mentioned plentiful barbecue sauce gets everywhere, and is sharply sugary, sweet and tangy.
Bizarrely, there are then pickles, which again provide a nice contrast to all that smoke flavoring, and then, long slices of onion. This is uncharacteristic for McDonald's, which usually favors those vats of rehydrated onion bits used on its hamburgers; these were long bits of real onion, which provided nice, distinct snap and flavor. The flavors combine into a whole sandwich that is mildly compelling and ultimately pretty satisfying.
The real trick here is not that McDonald's has managed to make a wildly profitable, edible sandwich that tastes vaguely like pork, uses gallons of syrupy barbecue sauce and will make your fingers swell up after you eat it. It's that it has put an incredibly long-term marketing plan in place that, in 30 years, managed to take a sandwich that nobody wanted in the 1980s and turn it into a cult object that even food bloggers who know better get excited to try.
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See also: This Week in Self-Loathing archives