This Fourth of July, as a Black man, I have been forced to re-examine what it means to be a citizen of “The Greatest Country on Earth.” On one hand, we have been making progress with our national reckoning regarding race, but we also have an embattled president whose mentality seems to be more fitting for 1920 than 2020. On the other hand, with our crippling wealth inequality and surging COVID-19 caseload, it seems difficult to justify my knee-jerk embrace of American exceptionalism. As I pondered this over the previous weekend, I found myself increasingly reliant on the counsel of the most prolific distillation of the American Dream: F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby.”
This novel lays out a cohesive theory of the ideal American identity that, while paradoxical in many regards, is a roadmap for how we should behave and a cautionary tale for the potential pitfalls along the way. According to Fitzgerald, a great American is ambitious and entrepreneurial yet also humble; he or she is a legendary, somewhat reclusive figure who allows an extensive myth to be constructed around them. Then, while I was flipping through chapter nine on July 5, my theory came into focus.
See, right now, no one person or group embodies the American ideal of Gatsby because of our deep divisions as Americans — we have been forced to take sides. You are either a Democrat or a Republican. You either spent the weekend excited to watch Hamilton with your friends over Zoom or lit fireworks in the woods without masks. You are either excited for The Kissing Booth 2 or have common sense. However, one thing we can all (arguably) agree on is our love for this country, and, by the end of this article, we will all agree that there is nothing more American than the McRib.
The birth of the McRib begins with the meeting of its two parents: Roger Mandigo and Rene Arend. As an emeritus professor of animal science at the University of Nebraska and Meat Industry Hall of Fame inductee, Mandigo invented the process of meat restructuring: Producers take meat from animals, combine the different types of meat and form it into different shapes before being flash-frozen. Then, in response to the dual crises of Food and Drug Administration warnings about beef consumption and rising costs of chicken, Arend — whose previous fame was for making the three McNugget sauces: Hot Mustard, Sweet & Sour and Barbecue — used Mandigo’s process to create the boneless pork patty, fashioned to look like a slab of ribs. Finally, in 1981, the McRib was unveiled to the world and began its journey into the hearts of millions of Americans.
Especially popular in the Midwest, the McRib immediately garnered a cult-like following from fans of the sandwich’s unique combination: a pork patty covered in an excessive amount of barbecue sauce, white onions and pickles. However, when McDonald’s celebrated its 30th anniversary in 1985, the company decided to pull the McRib from the menu because of assumed relatively little fanfare in response to rising pork prices and lagging sales, although the reasoning is explicitly undetermined. When the move was cruelly done with little to no warning, customers perceived it as a direct affront, and decades later they began to organize negligible protests outside of McDonald’s restaurants nationwide, but the anger eventually faded as the company remained firm on not bringing back the item.
Then, in what I can only assume was a response to Taylor Swift’s birth, the McRib was reintroduced as McDonald’s first-ever limited-time-only item in 1989, becoming a menu mainstay once again in 1994. However, just like all good things, this was not meant to last as McDonald’s once again announced that the sandwich would be pulled from stores in 2005.
This decision once again faced backlash, prompting McDonald’s to announce the McRib’s “farewell tour,” which, much like the 2014 farewell tour of Motley Crue, lasted far too long until the general public forgot about it, and the sandwich made its “final” exit in 2007. While the McRib became a distant, if slightly pleasant, memory for most, it, much like Shrek and Bene the Breadstick, developed a cult following on the internet, as superfan Alan Klein founded a McRib locator website, dedicated to finding regional locations that offered the fabled sandwich.
Thus, 13 years after the McRib has disappeared from the permanent McDonald’s menu, it has not disappeared from our hearts. In fact, upon its last nationwide release, the company attributed its 4.8 percent sales increase to the limited-time offering, which prompted me to write this letter.
See, in 2012, two years after the last nationwide release, I saw a documentary about the McRib, and I have wanted one ever since. However, the offerings are so limited that I have missed every one of the regional releases since then. And, like Donald Trump craves regularly embarrassing himself on live television, I crave the McRib. Not only do I crave the McRib, but McDonald’s superfans the world over crave the sandwich as well, and I believe right now is the perfect time to reintroduce it nationwide.
Right now, we need something, anything to unite us as a country, and I believe the McRib can provide that rare sense of national unity. If the company were to introduce it alongside a vegan option, they could tell a uniquely American story about a product with a folkloric quality that is the result of relentless innovation and ambition, which has resulted in the greatness that we all seek.
With that, I end my plea simply, please bring back the McRib. We need you now more than ever.
Keith Johnstone can be reached at email@example.com.