We are nearing the end of 2019, the Year of the Pig, and the global pork market is facing disaster. African swine fever, a viral disease with a 100 percent fatality rate among pigs, has spread to more than 25 countries in Europe, Africa, and Asia in the past year. ASF hasn’t reached the United States, but if it does, estimates put the damage at more than $4 billion. China, by far the largest pig-producing country in the world, is estimated to have lost roughly half of its swine population to the outbreak. There’s talk of China raising pigs the size of polar bears to combat the domestic decline; North Korea has officially reported only one instance of ASF, but unofficial internal reports suggest an apocalyptic collapse in stock. Meanwhile, the McRib is back.
Last week marked the now-annual return of McDonald’s most enigmatic product, an oblong feat of impressive—and gross—human ingenuity, drenched in the sticky-sweet, hickory-scented myth of exclusivity. The McRib, born in 1981, and having seen many deaths in the ensuing years, is a yearly reminder of what McDonald’s was at its origin point in the 1940s—a roadside barbecue shack in San Bernardino, California, serving burgers as a complement to its smoked meat. It is also a reminder of just how terrifyingly far the corporation has come since then.
The McRib was the first viral fast food phenomenon, a self-replenishing reservoir of hype—the Popeyes fried chicken sandwich’s great-grandfather. Yet, for all its lore, it’s a staid product that falls in line with McDonald’s standardized flavor rubric. That is to say, it tastes fine—I had one last weekend. And it will taste fine wherever you are in the world for the rest of time.
But we’re closing in on 40 years since its advent, and 25 years since its strategic limited-time deployment became a fixture in American culture. The phenomenology of the McRib seems quaint these days. Its comically obtuse “rib” design is no longer the most unsettling glimpse into the uncanny valley of fast food; its cult appeal, eagerly propped up these days by its purveyor, has lost some of its folkloric value. And, oh yeah, the ensuing global pork crisis on our hands. The late food critic Jonathan Gold elegiacally summed up the McRib experience in a 1990 review: “A McRib sandwich may not be the foulest thing I’ve ever put in my mouth, but it is certainly among the most dishonest.” That was nearly 30 years ago. As we enter yet another decade of human experience, whither the McRib?
In a 2003 episode of The Simpsons, the Simpson family once again falls under the spell of good old-fashioned all-American advertising. “We start with authentic, letter-graded meat,” a gruff, Sam Elliott–esque voice-over proclaims, “then process the hell out of it,” as a glowing, molten mass of meat byproduct is poured out of a foundry crucible and into a network of molds that look more like portable gas heaters than anatomically correct parts of an animal. It is Krusty Burger’s Ribwich, a parody of the McRib cut so close to the bone it’s a wonder the concept of an extruded Frankenswine sandwich wasn’t first thought up by Harvard Lampoon alumni. The Simpsons, as is their wont, predicted the future, turning the exclusiveness of the McRib into a B story line by constructing a hippified cross-country farewell tour for the sandwich, two years before McDonald’s ad execs did the exact same thing in real life.
For decades, the McRib has served as the blueprint for fast food brands hoping to cultivate fan participation, weaponizing a short supply to trump up demand. The retirement tours eventually begat a McRib Locator, which eventually became an app. For a long time, the McRib rode modernity’s wave. But true cultural moments are seldom fully dictated by the will of the business; over the past few years, the terms of engagement have warped beyond brand control. McDonald’s would know. It’s nearly impossible to explain the McDonald’s Szechuan Sauce Incident without first getting into two tangents explaining two unrelated moments in pop culture from two wildly different eras. Once those rabbit holes have been excavated, you’re still left with the question of how one of the biggest corporations in the world bent backward to appease the fans of a cable-network animated comedy.
We’re only two months removed from Popeyes’ fried chicken sandwich phenomenon, which took a very good sandwich and made it a symbol of ethics, morality, and both the mobilizing power and the exasperating frivolity of social media. (The demand for the fried chicken sandwiches prompted a brand war on Twitter among some of the biggest fast food purveyors in the country; McDonald’s, without a worthy contender, was conspicuously absent.) Popeyes’ sandwich has been off menus since September, due to shortage amid rabid demand. It will likely follow the McRib path of limited-time exclusivity, a self-replenishing resource with built-in marketing appeal, unleashed on the masses whenever the corporation deems it necessary. But it has one important advantage over the McRib and McDonald’s: It doesn’t take nearly as much mental gymnastics to justify its goodness.
The McRib’s form and function hearkens back to military food science advancements made in the 1970s to make use of undesirable animal trimmings in wartime. Flesh scrapings were pulverized and salted to draw out the fluids, then mixed with fat and formed into familiar shapes—a process that sounds as timeless as building a snowman, yet as vaguely futuristic as 3D printing a rack of ribs. But the McRib is no longer the vision of the future, having crossed over into a nostalgic novelty. There are newer entrants in the realm of fast-food science, and McDonald’s has thrown its hat in the race.
A week before the McRib was relaunched, McDonald’s Canada began a 12-week test of its Beyond Meat burger—a plant-based alternative the company is dubbing the P.L.T.—in 28 restaurants in Southwest Ontario. Beyond Meat stock shot up by more than 11 percent the day McDonald’s announced the test run. Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods are two leading plant-based meat producers whose magic trick goes a step beyond making fake ribs out of varying pig parts. It’s no less unsettling as a visceral experience, but perhaps a bit easier for the conscience to digest. Though not necessarily for vegans: The P.L.T. is prepared and cooked on the same surfaces as the rest of the menu.
Signs from the present point to a marginalized future for the McRib. It will always have its partisans, but as the half-sandwich/half-promotional-phenomenon enters middle age, can it ever amass the levels of hype that the Popeyes chicken sandwich now generates? Its strange, almost cartoonish rendition of a rib has created a unique cocktail of intrigue that combines curiosity, revulsion, and irony. But can comic novelty ultimately hold its ground against a heavily produced, plant-based meat product that, at least on the surface, has nobler aims at readjusting the global food systems?
At the end of the Simpsons episode, the reason for the Ribwich’s demise is explained by none other than Krusty himself, peeking out of a limousine moonroof: Krusty Burger had Ribwich’d the animal into extinction. The McRib and its limited window won’t cause a catastrophe of that magnitude, but the McRib and its exclusivity, long theorized to be dependent on pork-market arbitrage, is now in the throes of a potential global crisis. The McRib, one day soon, could go the way of the Ribwich—for real this time. But it’s bone-chilling to think of how that might be weaponized for promotional hype, both by McDonald’s and its fans, once we cross that bridge.