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Smoke Signals: Is the McRib barbecue?

By Jim Shahin

In all its glory. (McDonald's)

A week later, the reverberations from last Tuesday are still being felt. The mid-term elections? Yeah, that, too. But I’m talking about McDonald's reintroduction of the McRib, its now-you-see-it, now-you-don’t boneless pork rib sandwich.

It arrived from on high, through parting clouds, electrified on either side by streaks of lightning. No, really. It did.

On the McDonald's web site, the faux-‘cue sammy is represented as a sort of deity. The guys at the McDonald’s ad agency created a jokey marvel that the Mad Men creatives can only dream about. We saw it mentioned in articles and blogs weeks before it came out.

And when it arrived, it came with a cheeky back story. Originally introduced in 1981 after test-marketing well in the Midwest, the McRib was pulled from the McDonald’s menu a few years later due to poor sales. Since then, it has appeared sporadically and in specific regions. On Nov. 2, after a sophisticated viral marketing campaign, McDonald’s put it on its menu nationwide – for six weeks only.

Served on a six-inch roll, the rib-shaped pork sandwich comes slathered in a sticky sweet sauce and dotted with onion and pickle. It is to barbecue what those faux-Beatles bands are to the Fab Four. It is meant to make you believe you are enjoying the real thing.
I think.

Maybe not. Maybe they never intended anything “real” about the McRib at all. Maybe it is just a great post-modern marketing joke.

Whatever the case, the Internet has lit up with information about the sandwich. There is a “McRib Locator," which tells fans where to find the sandwich. We Love had a story headlined, “McRib Spotted in DC." The highbrow AtlanticWire has weighed in on the sandwich. Francis Lam at called it "a symbol of the fakery we've eaten up all campaign season." McRib even has its own Facebook page.

On Saturday afternoon, I went to the McDonald’s at Verizon Center to see whether I could figure out what all the hubbub was about. At a corner table was a couple, each person chomping down on a McRib. Ashley Nelsen, 30, a government employee from the Columbia Heights neighborhood, met Michael Proies, 34, from Shirlington, specifically to eat McRibs. “We built our day around it,” Nelsen said.


“We are going to see a movie,” she said. “But our main activity for the day is to get a McRib.”

It was her first and his second since the McRib came out again. Each had tried the sandwich during its first incarnation. Both agreed it lived up to their favorable recollection.

“I heard about it online,” Proies said. “It traveled quickly among our crowd.”

Here’s the kicker. The two are from barbecue hallowed ground: Nelsen, from Kansas City and Proies, from North Carolina. So, did they consider this sandwich barbecue? Both paused for a long time before answering.

“No,” Proies said, finally. “No. I don’t think it’s a barbecue sandwich.”

“It is,” Nelsen said, “a barbecue supplement.”

She said she brought a camera to take a picture of the sandwich to post on Facebook. Somehow, McRib and Facebook seem made for each other.

-- Jim Shahin

By Jim Shahin  | November 9, 2010; 8:00 AM ET
Categories:  Smoke Signals  | Tags:  Jim Shahin, Smoke Signals  
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I remember trying the McRib in Atlanta in 1981 (before I stopped eating meat 25 years ago). I remember biting into its spongy softness, chewing, and realizing that I couldn't quite tell whether I'd accidentally bitten off a piece of the wrapper. I couldn't be sure if I was chewing paper or sandwich, or paper with my sandwich.

I am from NC and lived in Texas for 8 years. I know BBQ, and the McRib is certainly not BBQ. Is it even pork? It is the only food I've ever eaten that I could not differentiate from paper.

Posted by: sherpadoug37754 | November 9, 2010 9:34 AM | Report abuse

eating anything with a "Mc" in front of the name is as good for you as snorting heroin cut with asbestos powder.

Posted by: NICKYNUNYA | November 9, 2010 10:03 AM | Report abuse

There is a good reason is only around for a limited time. Once people taste it, they will never want to taste it again. Gross.

Posted by: margaret6 | November 9, 2010 10:33 AM | Report abuse

I wish we had the McLobster - surprisingly good!

Posted by: KS100H | November 9, 2010 10:39 AM | Report abuse

It's barely food, let alone barbecue. Basically, it's an oversized pork McNugget without the breading.

Posted by: MStreet1 | November 9, 2010 12:54 PM | Report abuse

I tried the McRib in Chicago back in 1981 and have never eaten it since. It barely qualifies as "food" and certainly isn't BBQ.

Posted by: steveh46 | November 9, 2010 1:22 PM | Report abuse

I tried one today, caved in and ordered it. It's actually not that bad if you don't think about what you're actually eating. I got it for free, so that helped as well. Found this site where you can get a $100 McDonalds gift card - - That's like 29 McRibs, haha.

Posted by: sunshine040444 | November 9, 2010 3:17 PM | Report abuse

I used to like McRibs in a gross way many years ago. They were just like grade school cafeteria food...disgusting but tasty in some kind of nostalgic way. I don't eat fast food anymore, but the last couple/few times I ate one, it gave me diarrhea. Now the thought of them makes me nauseated.

Posted by: JayeVee | November 9, 2010 10:33 PM | Report abuse

If the McRib does nothing else, it sure does fire up the barbecue base. Thanks for your comments. If you 'cue hounds have bbq restaurant recommendations, story ideas, tips about the latest, greatest gadgets or trends, or anything else barbecue-related, let Smoke Signals know at Thanks. - Jim Shahin

Posted by: jimshahin | November 10, 2010 9:20 AM | Report abuse

Some of us are actually sick enough to enjoy these things. Fortunately for me I'm a regular traveler to Europe where McRib is Always available. Yum.

Posted by: kettke1 | November 10, 2010 10:40 AM | Report abuse

I've only gotten to have it a couple of times, and I fully realize it's not made over a hickory fire in the back of the franchise. I enjoy it for what it is, and besides, it's much more easily accessible for me than having to seek out the "holy grail of rib shacks" or spend the whole day attempting to make my own version. Cheaper too.

Posted by: fluxgirl | November 10, 2010 6:45 PM | Report abuse

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