The grandfather of limited-time fast-food sandwiches is back, but there's more competition than ever.

By Bill Oakley
October 04, 2019
Illustration by MouseMouse

Friends, Americans, Countrymen, lend me your ears: I have come to praise the McRib, not to bury it. This uncanny patty of boneless pork shoulder, lovingly machine-shaped into a miniature rack of ribs, is the grandfather of all fast-food LTO's (limited-time offerings), and—although it may no longer capture the nation's imagination as it once did—like any beloved grandfather, it deserves our respect, attention, money, and perhaps just a bit of loving derision.

In this frantic era of Chicken Sandwich Wars (both Spicy and Mild), Plant-Based Burger Mania, and crazy clickbait like Burger King's "Unhappy Meals," it's easy to forget the quaint bygone days when the nation (somewhat) annually went (somewhat) gaga over the surprise appearance of the McRib.

[Note: Even though it's technically called "McRib" and not "The McRib"—like "Ukraine" is apparently not "The Ukraine"—I just cannot accustom myself to said nomenclature.]

Today, the announcement of THE McRib's sudden appearance is met with a nostalgic nod by most, rather than near-unanimous elation. The McRib is no longer the Prodigal Son for whom we slay the fatted calf, it's that other son who got a polite handshake and a $10 gift card for Bed Bath & Beyond (if I recall my Bible correctly).

We are now numb to the LTO. The Arbinator! The KFC Cheetos Sandwich! Endless, mindless blabbing about the return of Wendy's Spicy Nuggets! Who can keep up? (Besides me, I mean.) The LTO is the hype-fueled test-kitchen of both the best (Taco Bell's Reaper Ranch Fries Burrito) and the worst (sorry, Burger King Tacos) of fast food's cutting edge.

Still, we fast-food aficionados look wistfully at the foreign menus of American chains: How come it's only Japan that gets to try the Wendy's Foie Gras Rossini Burger? Why are the Israelis the only ones who get the Burger King Donut Burger? Could we in America please try the Big Spicy Paneer Wrap? And why does the U.K. seem to get like 19 new McDonald's burgers a year (right now: the French Stack, the Indian Chicken, the Canadian Stack!)—when we are lucky to get one?

We heard it was because Americans have unadventurous palates or because of supply chain issues. Why, if McDonald's were to introduce a burger with a blue radish on it (for example), it would use up the world's entire supply of blue radishes (for example)! And imagine the expense of getting all those blue radishes to all 14,000 American McDonald's! Never! Ha ha, just be happy you get to have a Sausage McMuffin in the afternoon now and shut up.

Fortunately, in the past few years, this logjam has broken and American fast food is up to its eyeballs in unusual LTO's. Even stodgy behemoth McDonald's introduced a line of "Worldwide Favorites," with a burger bringing the exotic "gouda" cheese to our provincial tastebuds. And Taco Bell seems to have successfully remixed the same 12 items in its kitchen into over 47,331 "new" items.

But it wasn't always so.

Many fast food chains went years without introducing a single new item. The Shamrock Shake was seasonal, but you never knew when the McRib was coming. (Rumor had it, it was tied to pork commodity prices.) And thus, through artificial scarcity and the promise of "unpredictable reward" (see: dopamine), we were conditioned to delight in the sudden appearance of our ol' friend, the machine-shaped pork-shoulder sandwich.

Let's be clear: the McRib is still good. I wouldn't rush out to get one, because I've already had at least 39 in the 39 years since it became available, but it is a solid, enjoyable McDonald's item. I recommend it. But it's… well, it's a little… old-fashioned? It's a relic of the era when customers didn't mind outrageously fake-seeming fast food items. Created by Rene Arend, legendary McDonald's executive chef and the genius behind the McNugget, the McRib is boldly unashamed to be a heap of ground meat squashed up into a fake shape it never once looked like. (Pork shoulder is not the same as pork ribs!) Today, with so much emphasis on the organic, the artisanal, the minimally-processed, I daresay a new item so brazenly bogus would be derided on Colbert, mocked on the morning shows, and laughed off of Twitter.

Yet we grew up with it. And, thus, we can overlook all that.

Welcome back, Grandpa McRib. You may look a little odd. You may smell a little weird. You may be a strange relic of a bygone century.

But we still love you.

Bill Oakley is a former show-runner and head writer of The Simpsons, best known for writing the much-memed "Steamed Hams" segment. He has also written and produced Futurama, Disenchantment, and Portlandia, but his real passion is making short (and hopefully moderately-amusing) Instagram fast-food reviews. See them at @thatbilloakley on Instagram.

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