I have been aging the Rib Shaped, Barbecue Flavour Pork Patty from Menu 16 on the shelf behind my desk since February 2012, when I was given it during a tour of the US Army Natick Soldier Research, Engineering and Development Centre. By law, combat rations are designed to last for three years at 80 degrees Fahrenheit, so I'm not overly worried about food poisoning. Still, it's definitely long past its expiration date. But the perfect occasion to taste my now-vintage Meal, Ready to Eat (a.k.a. MRE) never came along. Until now: the MUNCHIES theme week on fast food.
I scissor across the end of the pouch and tumble the rectangular "rib" onto a plate. The pebbly textured meat is caramel brown and crossed by four raised "bones." Not unappealing, except if you peek in the package. The meat juice is a bizarrely bright yellowish-orange; I quickly tilt the pouch up to keep it from splashing out. Following the civilised example set by our Tweeter-in-Chief, I slice off an end with a knife and fork. It's porky and slightly smoky, although there's a tinny aftertaste, probably from some of the preservatives used to keep it fresh so long. Using a couple of "wheat snack breads" and the packet of dark, oily "BBQ" sauce that came with it, I assemble a sandwich and take a bite. Not bad! Scatter a couple onion slices and pickles on top, and the whole thing would be pretty damn close to a McRib.
Which makes perfect sense. Seeing how consumers go loco for the ersatz baby backs when they appear at McD's, why wouldn't the US military want to provide a similar treat for the hardworking men and women on the battlefield in Iraq, Afghanistan, and—perhaps coming soon to a theatre near you—North Korea? It's hard not to imagine the Natick Centre food technologists, who spend all their time creating and perfecting rations, being inspired on a run to their local drive-though, and the McDonald's corporation, patriotic American business that it is, giving the project a big thumbs up.
The McRib was born of fear. In the mid-1970s, McDonald's, while still on its global domination trajectory, was feeling pressure from competitors "Have It Your Way" Burger King and aggressive upstart Wendy's. It was also reeling from a 1977 federal government recommendation that people "decrease consumption of meat and increase consumption of poultry and fish" to avoid heart disease. The upshot: erosion of their core business, the burger. It was time to expand their offerings. But the fried chicken market was already cornered by KFC and newcomer Popeye's, which sold crispy drumsticks and breasts by the bucketful. Their Filet-O-Fish, introduced countrywide in 1965, was never going to be a bestseller because, well, fish. And the tastiest pork preparation was barbecue, whose long cooking over low heat is the epitome of slow food—and whose bones 'n' sauce presentation was antithetical to the tidy tidbit ethos of the quick-service restaurant.
Was there a way to harness the bland appeal of the deep-fried bird and the succulence of the pit-cooked pig without making a big-ass mess?
There was. And that know-how came from another mega organisation that unceasingly seeks to create food that's inexpensive, portable, and universally appealing.
The McRib and, with a small modification, the McNugget are actually restructured meat, a food processing technique created by the US Army in the 1960s to dramatically lower its food bill. Until then, most beef, lamb, and pork had been sold in carcasses, which were broken down by butchers in specialty shops or, increasingly, supermarkets. But the system was inefficient. Dead animals are oddly shaped, and take up a lot of room. They include bones and gristle, which end up being tossed. And they are shockingly inelastic when all your customers want T-bones for Father's Day, of which there are only 12 pounds on a 1,200-pound steer. Enter boxed meats, itself a military innovation from World Wars I and II. By the mid 1960s, the Army could order exactly the cuts it wanted. And what they wanted was the cheapest stuff available—the trimmings.
Food technologists at the Natick Centre were asked to develop "fabricated meat" by figuring out a way to turn this waste product into something edible. It took them the better part of a decade, but here's what they came up with:
1. Scrape flesh off bone, remove sinews, and grind into flakes. These turned out to be the perfect sized particle to simulate a whole-muscle cut.
2. Add salt and tumble. This causes—official meat science term here—"exudate" to ooze from the flakes. This was the original "meat glue" (later versions isolated a single protein), and was patented in 1958 by the military's longtime collaborator, Oscar Mayer.
3. Add fat back in for richness, sodium phosphate for juiciness.
4. Form into patties, nuggets, cutlets, or fake rack of ribs.
5. Cook in airtight package (for MREs, add some preservatives to help keep fresh during prolonged storage at room temperature), or freeze (for the fast food industry).
By 1976, soldiers in the field were testing fabricated beefsteaks, lamb chops, veal steaks, and pork chops, and in 1981, the heat-and-serve entrees, now renamed "restructured meat," became a staple in the new MRE ration. "For the military, it was a very important application. It allowed them to use all the meat from a particular animal and provide essential nutrition in portion-controlled, easy-to-prepare serving," Dr. Roger Mandigo, a Natick Centre contractor and meat scientist, told me.
Mission accomplished—for the Army. But it was just the beginning for the fast food industry. Several of the Natick Centre's collaborators began knocking on doors—from Denny's to Burger King to McDonald's, peddling the new processing technique as a way to produce something tasty for almost nothing. Says Mandigo, who is often erroneously credited with the invention of restructured meat—and, by extension, the McRib—"Government doesn't patent their intellectual property, so anyone can use it. They [the Natick Centre] presented material at technical meetings… The military allowed us to use the processes they'd developed."
Although restructured meat represented a radical departure from the plain ground beef of its signature product, McDonald's was one of the first quick-service chains to bite. "McDonald's McRib is as close to our product as you can get," John Secrist, a food technologist at the Natick Centre, told me. In an attempt to give pork "the same stature as beef in the institutional market," the National Pork Producers Council funded Mandigo to show how to apply the new technique. Using his roadmap, McDonald's then developed "a patty of pork made from small flakes of meat taken from the shoulders of a pig," according to the professor in a 1982 United Press International. Upholding the McRib scarcity theory, Mandigo observed that merely testing the item in one-third of the country's almost 6,000 Micky D's required 40 to 60 percent of the total amount of pork shoulder available weekly.
The McNugget is also a restructured meat product, with the addition of modified cornstarch for thickening. But in this case, credit for the technical details is claimed by Keystone Foods, McDonald's meat supplier (the 12th largest meat company in the US, according to National Provisioner). "In 1981, the McDonald's President said he needed chicken on his menu and wanted something that customers could hold in their hands, with no bones and cut into pieces," explained the company's founder Herbert Lotman to National Provisioner. "We tried several attempts to fit his requirements… [I]t took us about six months to create what looks like the nuggets we have today." Fish stick maker Gorton's is said to have contributed the tempura batter, according to the book Tastes Like Chicken: A History of America's Favorite Bird.
A burger is pretty simple food. The main ingredient, beef, is ground, perhaps with some salt and pepper added, and then gently shaped into a patty so as not to disturb the muscle proteins and toughen the meat. From there on, it's just a question of cooking technique: grill, broil, or pan fry? While McD's had built an empire on cookie-cutter hamburger production, the steps involved were still basically the same as for the home cook. The most controversial update had been an early 1970s move to frozen instead of fresh patties. So when that changed with a vengeance with the introduction of the McRib and the McNugget, McDonald's knew the manmade animal proteins would be much more acceptable to the public if they'd been invented by a personable and photogenic executive chef.
They found him at the Chicago Whitehall Hotel's members-only club, which is exactly the kind of place you'd expect Ray Kroc, the founder of McDonald's, and Fred Turner, its CEO, to hang out during the late 1960s, drinking martinis, smoking Montecruz cigars, and scarfing steak Diane and creamed spinach. There, according to company legend, they met, befriended, and, for ten years, wooed a young Belgian-born chef, Rene Arend (1928-2016), to be McDonald's product development chef. "I told him I am not a hamburger man. I am a chef. We are completely different," said Arend in a Weekly World News interview. But the fact that they were hiring an unknown local cook with zero training in food science to lead a multinational powerhouse that had recently sold its 20 billionth burger didn't seem to matter much to Kroc and Turner.
Arend began work at the food lab in McDonald's Oak Brook, Illinois headquarters in 1976. His assignment: chicken. His first few projects, a deep-fried pot pie and the McChicken sandwich, flopped. But—origin story alert—on a suggestion from Turner that he experiment with bite-sized pieces, in 1979 he turned his attention to the McNugget. There was a catch, however. The need for such a large quantity of boneless birds—at that time, fast food places sold only bone-in fried chicken—overwhelmed poultry processors. They couldn't keep up. To fill the gap, Arend, allegedly inspired by a trip to Charleston, South Carolina, created a boneless barbecue sandwich, the McRib. Both items were added to the Golden Arches menu in the early 1980s. (The McRib, too, initially failed, and was retired in 1985, to be reintroduced in 1989, again in 1990, again in 1991, again in 1992, again in 1993, and… you get the picture.) While we now know the real story behind the "meat," Rene Arend did add the finishing touches to both items: the McRib's washboard shape, sauce, and condiments and the three special dipping sauces—barbeque, sweet-sour, and hot mustard—for the McNugget.*
Cue the press tour. As McDonald's rolled out its new entrees, Arend led the charm charge, distracting attention from what was below the batter. Tall, slim, and impeccably dressed in a spotless white uniform and towering toque, he was always smiling. Articles usually began with a reference to his European culinary training and the fact that he had once cooked dinner for the Queen of England, then quickly segued to his "inventions." "His latest triumph is Chicken McNuggets, bite-size pieces of boneless breast and thigh meat with a tempura coating," wrote the food editor of the Minnesota Star Tribune in 1984. She admiringly noted that Arend came up with the idea in one day, "But the company, which was then feeding 17 million customers a day, required two years to smooth out the wrinkles of the manufacturing process." The finishing touch is some quips from the executive chef himself, such as this to the New York Times: "I wanted to do for the people out there in the street what I did for those who were rich.'' And decades later to Maxim: "The McNuggets were so well received that every franchise wanted them." (Crunchy, poultry pops succeeded beyond anyone's wildest dream; chicken titans KFC and Popeye's ultimately had to retool and offer boneless, batter-coated bits to remain competitive.)
America's 21st-century war on processed food was also parried by clever marketing. In 2005, McDonald's launched a McRib farewell tour, complete with cheesy rock anthem radio ads, to permanently phase out the mini-slab. In response, the "Boneless Pig Farmers Association of America" rallied people to a "Save the McRib" campaign, gathering 100,000 signatures in an online petition. Both efforts, of course, were created by a McDonald's ad agency. Good fun, right? Maybe. By the early 21st century, fast food was under fire. In a 1994 press conference on the White House lawn, former Surgeon General C. Everett Koop had identified a new public health menace, "[a]n epidemic of disease and disability and death all traced to the plain fact that too many Americans are too big." The exposé Fast Food Nation was published in 2001, and the documentary Super Size Me, in which filmmaker Morgan Spurlock subsisted on McDonald's for a month, came out in 2004. People started counting the number of ingredients in their favourite on-the-go meals and panicking when the total reached 40, 50, 60. By gently mocking its bizarre, skeleton-free patty, McD's normalised it—and deflected further scrutiny of its origins.
I don't finish my Rib Shaped, Barbecue Flavour Pork Patty. And while it's obviously not a piece of real meat, it chews nicely and even has some specks of gristle and fat. I appreciate all the ingenuity that has gone into making these matted-together flakes of pork protein safe, nourishing, and relatively palatable. In dire circumstances, I would chow it down with gratitude. But would I pay $3.79 to eat it by choice? An engineered meat whose freakishness has been soft-pedaled by winky-face marketing and a jolly dude in a chef's hat? Seriously Probably not.
As Jonathan Gold, restaurant critic for the Los Angeles Times, puts it: "A McRib sandwich may not be the foulest thing I've ever put in my mouth, but it is certainly among the most dishonest."
*McDonald's declined to be interviewed for this article, as did several former employees of the company and Keystone Foods, its supplier.
Anastacia Marx de Salcedo is the author of Combat-Ready Kitchen: How the U.S. Military Shapes the Way You Eat (Penguin Random House, 2015), and is currently writing another book, In Defense of Processed Food. You can reach her at @CombatKitchen or email@example.com.