YouTube: Weird History

The McRib's History Starts With Feeding the U.S. Army

The McRib is one of McDonald's limited time menu items that inspires love and adoration from some fans and suspicion in others. Some are off-put by the mysterious contents of the McRib, while others are happy to eat the pork sandwich smothered in barbecue sauce with no questions asked. As it turns out, the history of the McRib is an unexpected one.

The McRib Sandwich

The McRib sandwich was first introduced to the fast-food chain in 1981, and it was originally a way to stand out against the rapidly growing chains Burger King and Wendy's. There was also a nationwide shortage of chickens, so McDonald's suddenly had to stop serving chicken McNuggets. The McRib was a way to continue attracting customers despite the shortage of nuggets, and it was more successful than McDonald's had ever hoped.

For its smoky barbecue flavor, its pickle slices and its mysterious comings and goings, the sandwich gained a cult following of McRib-loving McDonald's fans. Every time it was suddenly taken off the menu, customers only grew to love it more than the always-accessible year-round products.

The History of the McRib

There are a number of theories for how the McRib came to be. While the BBQ-flavored sandwich is primarily made of boneless pork shoulder, it's well-known that this dish isn't actually ribs, but instead a conglomeration of different meats, shaped to replicate a rack of ribs. Whether this turns you off of the dish or intrigues you further, that's up to you.

Anastacia Marx de Salcedo, author of Combat-Ready kitchen: How the U.S. Military Shapes the Way You Eat, which can be found on Amazonhas researched the origins of this particular McDonald's menu item.

As she explains, McDonald's first executive chef, Rene Arend, designed the flavor for the McRib, which was used off of baby back ribs. She also notes that Dr. Roger Mandigo, a member of the National Pork Producers Council, makes a claim to having come up with restructured pork chops, which McDonald's altered to create the McRib.

One of the most interesting theories for the McRib's history is that which credits the U.S. Army for inventing the technology that led to this fan favorite. Throughout its existence, the army has been working to create foods that would stay good for long periods of time, which has led to a number of staples, from TV dinners to energy bars.

"Military-funded food science has a focus on imperishability, durability, affordability, and palatability," Marx de Salcedo says. Concerns like sustainability and long-term health come after the immediate needs of soldiers.

In the 1960s, the army pioneered restructured meat, which is essentially when smaller pieces of meat are binded together to create a larger, cohesive piece of meat. Marx de Salcedo found that a food scientist named John Secrist, who worked at the Natick Soldier Center for Research and Development, was asked to develop a cheaper version of steaks and chops to feed the soldiers.

This led to the scientists' creation of what became the McRib. The army partnered with a number of companies to make the meat product more palatable, which led to the product's use in the private sector. As Secrist explains, Denny's offers restructured beefsteak on their menu, and the McDonald's McRib is a slightly modified version of what the army created.

The Brief Return of the McRib

Some McDonald's customers would rather eat the mysterious McRib than wonder about its origins. The last time this beloved menu item came back to McDonald's was in December of 2020, for the first time in eight years. Amid the anxiety-ridden winter months of 2020 and the nation-wide mental health crisis caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, the McRib was a spot of light in the darkness for the cult followers of this legendary sandwich.

The famous sandwich was all over social media and TikTok as fans celebrated its return, and one controversial TikTok went viral for "exposing" how the sandwich is made. The McDonald's menu item is so popular that there's even an entire website dedicated to locating it, called the McRib Locator. As popular as the McRib is in its own right, we have the U.S Army to thank for this barbecuey, delicious McDonald's menu item.

Editor's Note: Products featured on Wide Open Eats are independently selected by our editors. However, when you buy something through our links, we may earn a commission.