The McRib: Enjoy Your Symptom

How McDonald’s strange, seasonal sandwich explains the rest of its menu
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Each year, the McRib makes a brief visit to Earth. Its arrival elicits reactions ranging from horror to awe. And for good reason: this would-be rib sandwich is really a restructured pork patty pressed into the rough shape of a slab of ribs, its slathering of barbecue sauce acting as camouflage as much as coating.

“Pork” is a generous term, since the McRib has traditionally been fashioned from otherwise unmarketable pig parts like tripe, heart, and stomach, material that is not only cheap but also easier to mold and bind into a coherent, predetermined shape. McDonald’s accurately lists the patty’s primary ingredient as “boneless pork,” although even that’s a fairly strong euphemism. Presumably few of the restaurant’s patrons would line up for a Pressed McTripe.

Despite its abhorrence, the McRib bears remarkable similarity to another, more widely accepted McDonald’s product, the Chicken McNugget. In fact, the McRib was first introduced in 1982, shortly after the company had designed the McNugget. Chicken McNuggets are fashioned by the same method as is the McRib, namely by grinding factory-farmed chicken meat into a mash and then reconstituting them into a preservative-stabilized solid, aka a “nugget.” And both products are bound and preserved by a petrochemical preservative called tertiary butylhydroquinone, or TBHQ. According to the Consumer’s Dictionary of Food Additives, one gram of TBHQ can cause “nausea, vomiting, ringing in the ears, delirium, a sense of suffocation, and collapse.” In a 2003 lawsuit accusing McDonald’s of consumer deception, federal district court judge Robert W. Sweet called Chicken McNuggets a “McFrankenstein creation.”

But despite rejoinders like that of Judge Sweet, the Chicken McNugget flies under the radar, hiding its falseness, while the McRib flaunts it. In part, this is because the concept of a Chicken McNugget corresponds with a possible natural configuration of ordinary poultry, whose meat could be cut into chunks, battered, and fried. By contrast, there is no world in which pork spare ribs could be eaten straight through, even after having been slow cooked such that some of the cartilage breaks down. It’s a partial explanation for the horror and the delight wrought by McRib, but not a sufficient one.

* * *

Sometimes the things we believe aren’t out there in plain view, but hidden away inside. The French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan gives the name objet a to the thing that elicits desire. In French the phrase means “object other” (the a stands for autre). For Lacan, our behaviors themselves may be knowable, but the causes of those behaviors aren’t always so. Objet a is not the object of desire (the thing we desire), but the thing that causes the desire to come into being (the cause of a desire for that thing). The philosopher Slavoj Žižek sometimes calls objet a the stain or defect in the world that motivates a belief or action.

Psychoanalysis focuses on the operation of the unconscious, the motivations that make us think, believe, and act without us being aware of them. As such, we can’t see those causes directly, we can’t unearth them and hold them in our hands. This is one of the main differences between psychoanalysis and modern psychiatry and neuroscience. The psychoanalyst contends that our rationales are not reducible to their symptoms (for matching to pharmaceuticals) or their measurements (for matching to known neurological patterns).

The causes of our desires can’t be seen directly, but must be looked at from a distorted perspective. Žižek calls it a “parallax gap,” a break in perspective separating two things that cannot be synthesized. Here’s how he puts it: “the object-cause of desire is something that, when viewed frontally, is nothing at all, just a void—it acquires the contours of something only when viewed sideways.”

Hans Holbein, The Ambassadors (1553)

In the history of art, the most famous example of “looking awry” at an image to see what only appears as a void from the front is Hans Holbein’s 1553 painting The Ambassadors. When viewed straight-on, its clear that something is amiss in the foreground near the ambassadors’ feet. But only when the picture is viewed askew, from a different perspective, does the “stain” reveal itself: a skull, symbolizing death, thus betraying the vanity of the vestments and ornaments of the painting’s aristocrats. Even though we see skull in the painting, we don’t really see it for what it is until we look at it differently, until we view it sideways.

The McRib is like Holbein’s skull: we experience it as (quasi-)foodstuff, as marketing campaign, as cult object, as Internet meme, but those experiences don’t sufficiently explain it. To understand McRib fully, we have to look at the sandwich askew.

When McDonald’s first “retired” the McRib in 2005, it marketed the event as the “McRib Farewell Tour.” The promotion included websites with a mock-petition to save the sandwich, sponsored by the fictitious “Boneless Pig Farmers Association of America.” The same farewell tour appeared again in 2006, and yet again in 2007. Since then, the sandwich has reappeared for a few weeks in the autumn, a predictable part of the holiday season.

Together, the eternal return of the McRib, along with the blatant celebration of a sandwich that is obviously and unabashedly fake comprise the cause of desire the public bears for McDonald’s. Not just for the McRib, mind you, but for all of the restaurant’s offerings—most of which rely on the same cheap ingredients, machined pre-preparation, and chemical additives that the McRib embodies to the point of caricature.

We know that we do not know the composition of the McNugget or McRib or McWhatever, but we do not know precisely what it is that we do not know. Nevertheless, we desire such products not in spite of the fact that we do not know it, but because we don’t. This apparent paradox rests at the very heart of McDonald’s cookery: the secret components and methods that make it possible to create cheap and predictable, sweet and fat fast food. We normally don’t talk about it, but the chemical composition, mass-manufacture, and freezer-to-tray reconstitution of fast food isn’t just a convenient means to produce a result people enjoy. Instead, that very manufactured falseness is itself what we desire, in food as much as in smartphones—what is high-tech if not designed fakery?

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Ian Bogost is a writer, game designer, and contributing editor at The Atlantic. He is the Ivan Allen College Distinguished Chair in media studies and a professor of interactive computing at the Georgia Institute of Technology.

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