Re-Eating an American Classic

I don’t know when my love affair with McDonald’s started or, more importantly, when it started to wane. Maybe it was back in high school, on the day I bit into a Chicken McNugget and noticed the meat was pink. Or maybe it was, ironically enough, when the chain made its fries healthier. The old fries were greasy, soggy, salty and insanely quaffable. The new fries, on the other hand, were dutifully dull—and I suspect they weren’t any more nutritious, either, so what was the point? Regardless of the reason, I had left the land of Big Mac long before Morgan Spurlock’s Super Size Me came along.

Still, the news late last year of the limited-time return of the McRib got my taste buds jumping. The pork rib facsimile—a mystery meat sandwich if there ever was one—embodied McDonald’s at its zaniest, over-processed, artery-squeezing best. What a sandwich! What a country! It didn’t take long before I was back at the Golden Arches. It was like I never left.

With a single bite of a McRib, good memories came flooding back. The barbecue sauce was amazing. The Chiclet-size onions were perfect and crunchy. The bun was mushy without turning soggy. Even the pickles were great—and I don’t even like pickles.

Yet the McRib is powerful enough to make me forget that I hate pickles—and the recession, the foreclosure crisis and the price of gas, too. At $1.89, the sandwich took me back, to a less complicated time. It was 1983 again. And I was happy.

And it’s not just me: People drive miles to find a McRib. A friend of a friend here in Las Vegas ordered an entire box of patties direct from McDonald’s—they’re stuffed in his freezer this very moment. Meanwhile, legions of McRib fans are constantly begging the burger chain to put the sandwich back on the permanent menu. There is even a “McRib Locator” online (, where you can “submit your recent sighting.”

The sandwich debuted in the early ’80s, back when I was 10 or so. Although it was eventually taken off the menu, the company brings it back now and then for limited periods of time.

Apparently, time hasn’t changed the McRib. I asked a spokesman if the recipe had been tweaked to appease nutrition hawks or evolving American palates. “There are no plans to change the recipe for the McRib,” he told me. “Our customers tell us they love the taste just the way it is.”

Indeed they do.

I recently stopped by a McDonald’s on Tropicana Avenue, hopeful. The McRib’s limited-time run was up (they stopped shipping patties in early January, according to the company), so it was no longer on the menu. But it never hurts to ask, and mercifully, this location had some in stock. I ordered one with fries and a Sprite, then waited anxiously. It felt like it took longer than usual, like they actually had to—what’s the word?—cook it.

When it finally arrived, it came in packaging designed for five Chicken Selects.

The indignity.

I rescued the legendary sandwich from its shame and went to take a bite, but found myself hesitating. For a brief moment, a wave of anxiety washed over me as an entirely different collection of images flashed through my mind—pictures I had seen online a few days before, when I went online to research the sandwich and came across photos of a disgraced McRib patty, naked, without its sauce. It looked like something you’d throw down on the road to puncture tires.

While that was traumatizing in itself, that picture wasn’t nearly as disturbing as the one that showed the inside of the patty. (It was a white congealed blob that looked like brains more than anything meant for human consumption.) I couldn’t help but wonder if one McRib might have the same toxic effect on me as Spurlock’s monthlong Golden Arches binge had on him.

I managed to push my second thoughts to the back of my mind, though, and after that first bite, all doubts disappeared. It was 1983 again. The pickles and onions and sauce were great once more. The McRib was messy but not too messy—manufactured messy—in other words, delicious. But about halfway through the sandwich, my McRib high began to wear off. And not long after that, the sandwich stubbornly lodged itself into a corner of my stomach (though, in all fairness, I had expected as much).

I’m not here to bury the McRib. I admit that the rib-shaped patty makes absolutely no sense—who would want to eat the bones anyway?—but that’s just part of its genius. The curious formation elevates the McRib beyond lumpenprole meat or any sort of rectangular, non-turkey turkey burger and into a kitschy, edible trophy of Americana. In this light, the McRib has earned its place alongside the likes of Spam, Cheez Whiz and Tang.

So what’s next for the McRib? We don’t know when (or, God forbid, if) McDonald’s will bring it back. Personally, I believe the McRib will ultimately serve as an indelible sign to anthropologists 1,000 years hence that our civilization never really had much long-term viability. Not that that will stop them from wanting to try one— a few bites of one, at least.