Answer Man: Why does McRib get no respect?

News-DemocratJune 2, 2014 

Why does McDonald's keep bringing the McRib sandwich back to its menu -- and then removing it a few weeks or months later year after year?

-- Bill Hollein, of Breese

What do you want to bet that the McRib may have been Rodney Dangerfield's favorite sandwich?

After all, like the famous comedian, it just don't get no respect. It's like the Edsel of fast-food sandwiches for all the abuse it receives.

For example, there was the "Big Bang Theory" episode when Penny tries to explain to nerdy Sheldon that Tennessee Williams' drama "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" is an American classic. "So is the McRib sandwich," he replies, "but I don't care for those, either."

Arsenio Hall once called it "Spam covered with sauce." Or how about comedian John Oliver comparing the McRib to the death penalty being permitted in a moral society. "Tantalizing," he observed of both, "but ethically wrong."

I remember trying one after they debuted in 1981. McDonald's was making a major marketing push at the time and newspaper pictures sort of made them look like a small slab straight off the grill. So with the taste of ribs that my dad would carefully smoke for three or four hours in my mind, I ordered one. What I bit into, of course, was a lump of something I hoped was pork drowning in mediocre sauce.

Which is how many customers apparently feel, according to Peter McGuinness, CEO of DDB Chicago, McDonald's lead advertising agency. In an interview in the Business Insider, McGuinness said McDonald's demands that all of its menu items be hugely popular or else they are yanked. The McRib doesn't meet that criterion, so it can't be a full-time offering.

But enough people do like them that McDonald's dangles the "treat" out there for short periods in hopes of bringing fans back and perhaps introducing new generations to them. It's sort of like Disney releasing its umpteenth version of "Sleeping Beauty." It's only going to be available for a limited time before it's locked away in the vaults again, it warns as it tries to work fans into a frenzy.

So it is with the McRib, McGuinness said. It's often released around the Thanksgiving-Christmas season, when the company is looking for an extra holiday lure. ( "We don't really do polar bears," McGuinness says, referring to the classic holiday Coca-Cola commercials.)

It also may remind people of the now-departed days of the summer barbecue. The McRib provides "a great piece of buzzy news that surprises and delights late in the year on the marketing calendar." (Some who track agricultural trends also suggest the McRib returns when the pork meat that goes into them is cheapest.)

Of course, if fans knew the real story behind products like the McRib, they might reconsider before buying. That tale involves Roger Mandingo, a University of Nebraska at Lincoln professor who helped perfect the process of turning "lower-valued" meat trimmings into restructured meat products like the McRib.

It involves mixing the trimmings with salt and water to extract certain proteins. Those proteins produce a glue that binds muscle pieces together. These muscle pieces are then reformed as a "meat log" that can be cut into steaks or chops which, when cooked, are similar in look and texture as their intact muscle counterparts.

"Most people would be extremely unhappy if they were served heart or tongue on a plate," Mandingo, a Meat Industry Hall of Famer, wrote in "Food Chains: From Farmyard to Shopping Cart." "But flaked into a restructured product it loses its identity. Such products as tripe, heart and scalded stomachs are high in protein, completely edible, wholesome and nutritious, and most are already used in sausage without objection."

You also may be somewhat relieved to know that the McRib itself was the idea of Rene Arend. A native of Luxembourg, he came to Chicago in the 1950s as a cook at the Drake, where he won a gourmet cooking contest in 1959

Twenty years later, Ray Kroc lured him to McDonald's, where Arend developed both the equally restructured Chicken McNuggets (introduced nationally in 1983) and the McRib, patterned after the pulled-pork barbecue Arend had enjoyed in South Carolina.

"We have to cater to the American public," he once told Chicago Magazine as to why he would turn in his toque from five-star restaurants to become executive chef at McDonald's. "I am 31 years here, nearly as long as McDonald's. McDonald's is perfect American food, you see. But never are any restrictions put on me when I do a product."

As for me, if desperate I still will order a Quarter Pounder with cheese. But ever since my first taste, I've always been thankful God used something other than a McRib to create Eve.

Today's trivia

With the recent DVD release of the entire "Hill Street Blues" series comes this question: Who was the only cast member to be nominated for an Emmy in each of its seven seasons?

Answer to Sunday's trivia: According to the "Star Wars Holiday Special" (mercifully shown only once with Bea Arthur, Harvey Korman, et al.) Chewbacca was married to Malla (pronounced Molla and short for Mallatobuck) with Lumpawarrump ("Lumpy") his son and Attichitcuk ("Itchy") his father.

Send your questions to Roger Schlueter, Belleville News-Democrat, 120 S. Illinois St., P.O. Box 427, Belleville, IL 62222-0427 or rschlueter@bnd.com or call 618-239-2465.

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