Days Gone Bite: The McRib

I was there when McDonald's introduced Shanghai McNuggets, asking staff members at stores around the nation to don replica coolie hats.

That was in 1985 or thereabouts--before corporate sensitivity training but long after Americans should have known better. I still remember an Asian couple approaching the counter at a McDonald's in Columbia, Missouri, glaring at those hats. Of course, in 1992, when presidential contenders Bush and Clinton both toured the Old South, at least two publications ran headlines describing their efforts to court the "Bubba vote."

Which, in a strange way, brings us to the McRib. The burger chain successfully tested the pork barbecue sandwich in several Midwestern states in 1981, introducing it nationwide the following year. Sometime in that first McRib push, McDonald's ran a commercial for the product featuring several smiling black faces.

I'm sure the company was trying to be inclusive--it was one ad amongst many, after all. But seeing that particular spot on television is the first thing that pops in my mind at the mention of the on again, off again sandwich. Yet the McRib has so many dedicated fans.

Indeed, every time they pull it from menus--which they've done on several occasions, including the much publicized 2005 farewell tour--aficionados of sauce slathered pork product coalesce (congeal might be a better word) to petition for its return.

But why?

It's hard to say, really. I remember the McRib as one of the best things served by McDonald's--not counting breakfast--in the early 80s...although that's not saying a whole lot. Besides, the very thought of pork bits pressed into a shape resembling a small rack of ribs is rather disturbing.

Maybe the McRib represented processed fast food pushed to the extreme. Sure, they prepackage burgers in some warehouse and use the services of chemical labs in New Jersey to ensure consistent flavor. But the burger is still a burger, however processed. The McRib, on the other hand...

Or perhaps the McRib was just plain different than other McDonald's offerings. It had a different look and required its own unique bun. Like the old 'hot side hot, cold side cold' containers, they also came in one-off packages. And it contrasted sweet pork pieces with a somewhat tangy, vaguely barbecue-ish sauce--a combination that stood out when compared to burgers, McFish and chicken nuggets.

Probably, however, fans of the sandwich liked it for the same reason some people order boneless wings--which again suggests that it was (and is, whenever they bring it back) the ultimate expression of processed food.

And besides, sausage is equally suspect.

So it's not surprising that tens of thousands sign petitions to bring the McRib back on the market, over and over and over again. It has developed a cult-like following--unlike the Shanghai McNuggets.

Why marketing based on one dated stereotype works and another doesn't, who knows.

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Dave Faries
Contact: Dave Faries