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REVIEW: McDonald’s is Trotting Out the McRib Again

The chain’s venerable sandwich makes an unusual mid-winter appearance.

McDonald’s has been teasing this one for a few days now. Via ChewBoom:

Assuming McDonald’s of Northwest Florida’s tease is referring to the McRib – and we will – it appears the official McRib rollout will occur on Monday, February 20. While that may be true, it’s also true that there have been reports of McRib sightings as early as this week. I know, I’ve seen them.

The McRib is a classic lesson in McDonald’s using artificial scarcity to boost sales during slow months. The boneless sandwich with “rib” in its name, introduced in 1981, was never one of McDonald’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, 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 allowed the whispers surrounding its sandwich to spread, letting the McRib become something of 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 their 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 a cult-like status for their product turned into an actual cult. Even Saveur magazine got excited about it, running a recipe for their decidedly more highbrow version of the McRib, which uses homemade barbecue sauce and braised pork belly.

It looks like this winter, the McRib is going to once again be trotted out to much fanfare, and to introduce a month-long 5% profit boost for McDonald’s. And though I’ve had dozens of McRibs in my lifetime, I knew that it was time to sample one again, even though I have no fond memories of the sandwich from my childhood (I was, and continue to be, a strict double cheeseburger enthusiast).

It took me three tries to actually get a McRib. Each time, I would drive to the McDonald’s here in my hometown, and as I sat in my car, waiting in drive-through lines at least a dozen cars deep, I managed to talk myself out of it. Why would I wait, on purpose, for bad barbecue? How much did sitting in this line make me hate myself? And why should I eat a sandwich that I wasn’t even willing to get out of the car for?

McDonald’s McRib

At first glance, I was 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 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.

I would argue, though, that if you are willing 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 that they use on their 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 they’ve put an incredibly long-term marketing plan in place that, in thirty 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. If you didn’t get to have one this time around, fear not. They’ll be back soon. It’s all a part of the plan.

 

Written by Malcolm Bedell

Malcolm is the author of "Eating in Maine: At Home, On the Town, and On the Road," as well as a frequent contributor to Serious Eats, Down East Magazine, The L.A. Weekly, The Guardian, The Huffington Post, and more. When not poisoning his body with garbage and then posting sardonic commentary about it on the Internet, he also owns and operates the 'Wich, Please food truck, named Eater.com's "Hottest Restaurant in Maine" for 2015.

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