"The McRib: Is it more myth than a sandwich?
Sometimes, in the course of American history, something achieves cultural status simply by being mysterious or shrouded in a veil of uncertainty. Conspiracy theorists have their own spin on the Kennedy assassination, the Freemasons and, curiously, a McDonald's sandwich.
In 1982, the McDonald's Corp. unveiled a new sandwich oddly titled "The McRib."
What's odd is that the McRib is not made of ribs, but composed of boneless meat molded to resemble ribs.
McDonald's also markets the McRib sporadically. Absent since last February, the McRib has returned to local McDonald's menus.
"The McRib is made with a tender, boneless pork patty, covered in a hickory barbecue sauce," says Julie Pottebaum, a McDonald's Corp. representative.
Pottebaum also says the sandwich has 490 calories, 25 fat grams, 44 carbohydrate grams and 24 protein grams.
There aren't any additives in the McRib, she said, but it has some extras, such as 10 grams of sugar from the sauce.
There is no regular schedule for the McRib's erratic appearances, but Pottebaum says the McDonald's Corp. formats its menu based on customer feedback and preferences.
Still, the McRib exists in a shroud of mystery. Even fans of the sandwich aren't too certain what exactly they're putting in their mouths, a rib sandwich without actual ribs.
The McRib occupies a unique place in contemporary American culture. With each triumphant return, the restaurant informs customers "The McRib is Back!" or "By Popular Demand, The McRib!"
The Wall Street Journal reported in 2001 that the pork industry receives a boost when the McRib returns.
The McRib even enjoys a cult-like following. Web sites are dedicated to petitioning McDonald's to bring back the McRib permanently. Webmasters speculate on what's actually in the sandwich and why they find it so delicious.
The McDonald's Web site does not list the ingredients of the McRib along with the contents of other sandwiches. However, McDonald's' toll-free telephone number will provide the ingredients to those who ask.
Theories abound as to why the McRib is always returning, never permanently taking its place alongside the pantheon of McSandwiches: Quarter Pounder with Cheese, Filet O'Fish, McChicken and the almighty Big Mac.
"The mysterious meat in the sandwich might be seasonal. I think it has something to do with excess of meat or pork at a certain time of the year," says Konnor Ervin.
Ervin, the lead singer of Columbia rock band Dr. Woo, is a self-proclaimed McRib fan. Ervin, who eats a lot of McDonald's food, says if the McRib were a permanent menu item at McDonald's he wouldn't eat it whenever he goes to McDonald's. As it is now, when the McRib is around, that's the only sandwich he'll order.
"Part of the allure of the McRib is the mystery and timeliness," Ervin says. "I like it so much because it comes around at a limited time. That makes it all the more special."
That's exactly the kind of marketing strategy McDonald's is aiming for. By keeping the demand high and supply low, as well as veiling the McRib in a shroud of mystery, it's become more myth than sandwich. An article from the satirical newspaper The Onion investigated the McRib phenomenon. A newspaper search yielded more articles referencing the sandwich from a cultural or marketing perspective than articles devoted to the sandwich itself. Even "The Simpsons" spoofed the McRib subculture in a thinly guised parody called "The Ribwich."
Brad Prager is an MU professor of German who has written outside his field on issues of American culture, in articles such as "Towards an Archaeology of Disneyland." Prager says he used to eat fast food but gave it up entirely after reading Eric Schlosser's book "Fast Food Nation." Prager has never eaten a McRib.
"It amazes me that people see a passion for consumption as a product of their own desires when it's really formed and shaped by the industry itself," Prager says, pointing to McDonald's' Web sites that instruct children to "get happy for a happy meal."
The McRib is the same dirty, tasteless meat product covered with sugar and perfume that people get excited about, Prager says.
Based on what he's read about the fast food meat industry, Prager says the air of mystery around the McRib and the rest of McDonald's is repulsive at best, dangerous at worst.
"The real conspiracy is the air of secrecy. If people knew what was in the McRib they'd stop eating them," Prager says. To him, the whole meaning of the McRib is about consumption and how cleverly disguised McDonald's markets its products. "Once you set desire in motion people respond "” they feel like something is lacking in their lives. Obviously something is lacking, but it's not the McRib."
Chris Hurt, an agricultural economist from Purdue University who specializes in the pork market, says there are three possibilities behind the McRib's transient existence. First, that the McRib might be hard for McDonald's employees to cook. Second, Hurt says McDonald's brings back the McRib when pork prices are low.
"The low costs of pork then helps compensate for the higher costs of preparation," Hurt says.
Finally, Hurt suggests that customers might get tired of the McRib if it were a permanent food item.
Perhaps. But some McRib fans might never get tired of their favorite sandwich.
To find out what is in a Mc Rib, call 800-244-6227."