How The McRib Became A Magical, Mysterious, Disappearing Fast Food Sensation

Ever since its debut on McDonald’s menus in 1981, the McRib has been a popular Golden Arches staple. Throughout its sticky existence, the McRib has garnered adoration from fans so strong that they’ll drive hundreds of miles for their favorite sandwich. The “McFib” has also earned its share of revulsion, confusion, and most of all, curiosity.

What is it made of? (Spoiler alert: It will probably gross you out.) Why isn’t it a permanent menu item? (That’s complicated.) Where does it go when it's off-schedule? (Probably the same mythical place as the Tooth Fairy and the Easter Bunny.)

Whether you love it or hate it, how this “boneless pork” sandwich came into existence - and why it stuck around - is one of the more fascinating tales from the pages of food history. The McRib was not simply whipped up one day by a creative McDonald’s cook on a whim. It took more than a decade to finalize, and was a massive cooperative effort between military food scientists, gourmet chefs, the USDA Marketing Service, special trade interests, and some hilarious marketing campaigns.

Photo: Evan-Amos / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

  • When Burger Sales Sagged In The '70s, McDonald's Turned Its Attention To Chicken And Pork

    The 1970s presented a perfect storm of factors that ultimately culminated in the McRib's development. McDonald's was already feeling pressure from competitors like Wendy’s and Burger King when, in 1977, the federal government passed recommendations that people eat less red meat and consume more low-cholesterol meats like fish and chicken. They even developed a "Hassle-Free Daily Food Guide," complete with a caution symbol next to fats.

    The humble Filet-O-Fish had already been on the McDonald's menu since 1965, but it was never a big seller. So the company set its sights on other white meats. McDonald's had some help in this regard from the National Pork Producers Council, a private trade association founded in 1970 to seek out partnerships with companies like McDonald’s as a way to expand its interests. 

  • McDonald’s Created The Chicken McNugget And The McRib Using A ‘Restructured Meats’ Technique Developed For The Military
    Photo: Tech. Sgt. Cherie A. Thurlby, U.S. Air Force / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    McDonald’s Created The Chicken McNugget And The McRib Using A ‘Restructured Meats’ Technique Developed For The Military

    Purchasing cuts of meat can get expensive, especially when you’re feeding the masses. This was a problem both McDonald’s and the military faced during the '60s and '70s. In a creative twist of genius, animal scientist Roger Mandigo solved their shared issue with the invention of "restructured meats."

    After almost a decade of experimentation, Mandigo came up with a way to safely process the cheapest cuts of meat into palatable meat products. Known as “trimmings,” these cheap cuts of meat include “waste items" like tripe, skin, hearts, and stomachs.

    Mandigo could reduce the size of these parts via a mechanical process known as “comminution,” either flaking, chunking, grinding, chopping, or slicing them up into uniform pieces. The comminuted meat mixture is then mixed with salt and water to extract salt-soluble proteins. This process creates a “glue” that holds the processed meat log together.

    Restructured meats were revolutionary for everything from Military Ready Meals (MREs) to civilian foods like frozen chicken nuggets. In fact, this invention earned Mandigo an induction into the Meat Industry Hall of Fame (yes, that is a thing!).

  • McDonald's Recruited An Executive Chef To Add Credibility To The McRib

    The McRib's success can be credited to two men. Roger Mandigo was the brainchild behind the raw material for the “boneless pork” patty that would become the "US MRE Menu 16 Rib Shaped Barbecue Flavour Pork Patty,” and eventually the McRib. Someone needed to take this log of meat and transform it into a visually appealing, crave-able menu item. That someone was gourmet chef Rene Arend.

    A native of Luxembourg, Arend was a first-in-his-class graduate from the College Technique de Strasbourg and the former chef at Chicago's upscale Whitehall Club. Chef Arend was used to serving royalty when Ray Kroc asked him to switch from fine dining to research and development for McDonald’s.

    The company felt that having a personable and photogenic executive chef as the face behind its new man-made animal proteins would make them more acceptable to the public. This was the first of many marketing tactics McDonald’s would use to sway opinions about restructured meats.

  • The Sandwich Was ‘Constructed’ To Look Like A Slab Of Ribs, Despite Consisting Of Little Rib Meat

    Chef Arend was much more than just a pretty face. After exhaustive experimentation, he developed the original three McNugget dipping sauces: barbeque, hot mustard, and the ever crave-able sweet and sour.

    He was also the one responsible for the McRib’s final appearance. Once in their final "meat log" form, restructured meats can be shaped into any desired shape - from nugget pieces to dinosaurs. Rather than settling for a round, flat patty, or the pork chop shape suggested by Mandigo, Arend conceived of a mini rack of ribs.

    This was a perfect visual representation of the smoky-sweet, Southern BBQ flavor profile Arend was attempting to capture within the McRib. He completed the sandwich with pickles, onions, and of course, BBQ sauce, all wrapped in the fast-food equivalent of a French roll.

    Arend had succeeded in turning Mandigo’s fabricated meats into a viable and tasty food commodity. Now it was time to see if the public would buy it.

  • The McRib Sandwich Debuted In 1981 And Was A Big Hit In The Midwest
    Photo: McDonald's

    The McRib Sandwich Debuted In 1981 And Was A Big Hit In The Midwest

    The McRib was rolled out for testing in various locations in 1981. McDonald’s and all parties involved with making this monumental feat of food technology held their breath in anticipation. Much to McDonald's pleasant surprise, the public did not take to the streets rejecting the McRib, despite the fact that it featured novel processed meats.

    The sandwich was a huge hit in regional areas, especially the Midwest, but received muted responses throughout most of the country. It wasn’t until several years later that the McRib would earn a devoted fandom, both nationwide and beyond.

  • The McRib Suddenly Vanished In 1985, But The Rarity Added To Its Mystique

    The McRib was sold without fuss or fanfare for several years, until it was pulled from menus seemingly overnight in 1985. It’s unknown if McDonald’s was dissatisfied with sales numbers, purposely trying to create scarcity, or simply following the ever-fluctuating cost of pork trimmings.

    Whatever the driver behind the decision, removing the McRib from menus caused an uproar. Demand for the sandwich soared, and the McRib became the first limited-run fast food menu item. Pork and hog futures rose in response, as they have time and again since. The mutual interests of the National Pork Producers Council and McDonald’s were blossoming thanks to the McRib.

    Interestingly, this was the same year the National Pork Board was established, a branch of the USDA Marketing Service with the purpose of promoting pork as a food product. They came up with the memorable slogan, “Pork: The Other White Meat.”