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November 18, 2008

In Defense of the McRib

The McRib Photo Courtesy of Gary Wiviott

No, I didn't spend the three month layoff in Des Plaines, Illinois undergoing intense psychological reprogramming in a bunker beneath McDonald's HQ. But today, I'm going to stand up for the McRib. And not just for the McRib, but for that which the McRib represents, though we'll get to that later. This discussion starts with the discovery not only of the fact that I dig the crime against food pictured above, but that I'm far from alone... even among otherwise discerning food nerds.

With the most recent reintroduction of the sandwich to the Chicago market (are boneless pigs in season again?), an old thread over at LTH Forum, started two years ago by one Mr. Gary Wiviott in a moment of exasperation, was bumped back into action. Gary, you see, is a hardcore BBQ enthusiast, and not of the "slather a grilled chicken breast or boiled ribs with ketchup and liquid smoke and call it BBQ" variety. No, Gary's a true devotee of the low and slow method of turning meat into succulent, smoky bliss that is, along with jazz, one of the few true American art forms. As such, what surprised me about the thread wasn't Gary's violent reaction to the reappearance of his nemesis. Though he's able to maintain good humor about the subject, I've no doubt that on a deep, emotional level, Gary sees the McRib as an affront to all that is good and true in this twisted, cruel world. His reaction was (and is, every time the McRib resurfaces) entirely predictable, and the thread is certainly not lacking for like-minded individuals. Less expected, however, was the outpouring of self-loathing love for the meaty monstrosity that also followed.

White Castle's Chicken Rings
I shouldn't have been that surprised. Except for the most hardcore fuelers and dogmatic natural organic cheerleaders -- and let's face it, those people are boring -- I don't know anybody who doesn't have some culinary skeletons in the closet. Scour your kitchen cabinets, try to remember what you demolished in your last alcohol-induced haze, search the dark recesses of your soul for that fatty, salty, megasweet, oveprocessed and mass marketed guilty pleasure you try to forget about until the craving strikes (or, more likely, its commercial airs), and try to tell me it's intrinsically better than what you see pictured above. I don't mean to suggest that there aren't those who are genuinely outraged by the McRib, nor that they shouldn't be, necessarily. We all pick our poisons and the McRib may not be yours. But presuming that we can all find common ground in loving certain highly offensive foodstuffs -- armed with the knowledge that the picture above could just as well be the thing you're embarrassed to admit you ate last week -- what is it about the McRib that is so inherently offensive to so many?

The answer, I think, is in the moniker Gary chose to attach to the object of his scorn: The McFib.

Personally, I find the McRib's lack of real food qualities to be rather endearing. But there was a level on which I could completely sympathize. I've been similarly afflicted by a burning hatred for The Olive Garden since first visiting them in high school. But when I reflect upon the true root of my scorn, I'm forced to admit that it has nothing to do with the food. It's terrible, sure, but... well... look up. I'm in no position to throw stones. Rather, what burns me every time I see an Olive Garden ad is that it's being presented as authentic Italian cuisine that's lovingly prepared by chefs who have trained in Tuscany. It's the lie that gets me. So for a hardcore 'cue nerd, what's not to hate about the McRib? It's a meat patty slathered in sauce. There's no smoke. There are no ribs. Hell, I'm not even entirely certain the thing is made of pork. Yet I've no doubt that over the next month, the River North McDonald's will sell more fake ribs than all of the south side BBQ shrines combined will sell real ones. For a huge segment of the population, the McRib IS BBQ. And that chaps Gary's ass.

The thing is, in this golden age of irony and self-awareness, it doesn't need to be this way. McDonald's could take a cue (no pun intended) from White Castle in embracing the McRib's fakeness. Why go through the pretense of making the patty vaguely rib-shaped? White Castle had the right idea with its Chicken Rings. If you're going to process something so thoroughly into oblivion that it can't possibly hope to resemble the original beast in any way, why not embrace the fakeitude and make it the most unnatural shape possible? I, for one, think they should stamp the McDonald's logo into the patty, shape it like the silhouette of a cartoon pig and call it the McVaguelyPorkish. All absurd questions of authenticity fully preempted, we'll be free to simply enjoy the sandwich for what it is: processed, fused meat paste in a sickly sweet sauce. It won't be any closer to actual BBQ, but it'll be honest. And perhaps more importantly, it will help us to be honest with ourselves. As food nerds, we can labor all day over the perfect Ragu alla Bolognese, we can scour the nation's strip malls in search of that undiscovered gem of an ethnic restaurant, we can travel thousands of miles for fleeting moments of gastronomic bliss unattainable at home... and then we can have a McRib. Without feeling guilty about it.


- shape it like the silhouette of a cartoon pig and call it the McVaguelyPorkish

Do you remember, during the Mad Cow scare in Europe, what McDonalds called their pork sandwich?

I believe it was the McPink... a name that I'm sure would have needed to be reworked had the sandwich come to the States due to its anti-American subtext :-)

Yup... here it is... the number three meal in Milan:


I think the McRib is a product that makes its own comedy sauce. Among those who would care about such things, it's become emblematic of all that is utterly fake yet weirdly compelling. Calling it anything but what it is would merely dilute the delicious irony that the McRib embodies. Long live the delectable horror that is McRib!

I LOVE THE MCRIB!!! No lie...they will be the death of me...

I am fully in agreement that for many people it's the lie that irritates, not the food itself. I know that it's true for me; admit that it's a Sara Lee cheesecake, and I'll eat it and be happy. Try to make me think that it's "homemade" and I'll be well and truly ticked when I see that telltale pattern on the top.

Another example is something I ran across just recently: Pasteurized processed brie wedges. They were packaged just like real brie, and the "pasteurized processed" was in really tiny print. I didn't realize what I'd bought until I tasted the first one. I felt cheated. But I'll happily buy squeezy-cheese to deal with a craving, and it's even further removed from being real cheese. The difference is, it's honest about being vaguely cheeselike.

I'm more than a little pork-phobic. Ham scares me. Pork Roast has me climbing the walls, I'll eat sausage, and bacon, and I'll eat pork dumplings, but even they make me feel a little skittish.

A large part is probably my jewish heritage. A large part is probably a general and slowly ebbing skittishness around meat in general. But I think a good chunk of my skittishness also revolves around a traumatic McRib meal eaten as a small child.

That there is most likely little, if any, real pork in the McRib does nothing to lessen my horror. I think it's the shape more than anything.

As to your other point: While I normally like my Kraft Dinner with sauteed shrimp, carmelized onions and piment d'espaulet, I also think it tastes absolutely amazing if you crush Totino's Pizza Rolls in it for the true white-trash experience.

- I believe it was the McPink

I just remember the window signs PURO SUINO

I think another good example is Velveeta. Velveeta doesn't even bother calling itself cheese, yet even the most hard-core cheese enthusiast will have to admit (perhaps with a bit of prodding) that real cheese just doesn't give you the same texture in grilled cheese, or mac & cheese.

Or Spam. If you use it as a replacement for ham, it's an affront to nature. But if you respect its own innate charms, that horrid little pink brick can be a miracle unto itself.

"Or Spam. If you use it as a replacement for ham, it's an affront to nature. But if you respect its own innate charms, that horrid little pink brick can be a miracle unto itself."

And if an individual loves spam, it's bad taste, but if an island state loves spam, it's culture :-)

Wow, I'm reading old blogs of yours and it's so great! I personally hate the McRib. This is probably due to the fact that with excitement, I tried it as a youngster, only to get sick from it. However, I love that you mention White Castle Chicken Rings. Best New Foodstuff Ever. Thank you.

Ha, I noticed this link on the side and I'm going to add a very late comment, if only because you called out Olive Garden in your entry.

Look, I have Italian heritage. I know that Olive Garden is as Italian as Chef Boyardee. I know what real Italian food tastes like. Heck, I cook real Italian food all the time.

Having said that...I kind of like the Olive Garden. It's my guilty pleasure. I won't go for the McRib, I won't go for the chicken rings. The lie bothers me too, but there's a half truth to their lie. For example, their wine really is from Italy.

And some of their "chefs" really do go to the Culinary Institute of Tuscany. But then, the ones who end up going are known as "culinary managers." So it's not exactly like every line cook gets a free trip to Italy (if that was the case, I'd have tried getting a job to Olive Garden just for that perk alone, and then quitting when I return to the States).

I'm able to eat Olive Garden because I don't see it as Italian or even Italian-American food. I tell myself it's "Italian-esque" and that satisfies me.

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