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The-Best-Food-Writing-of-2013I made it through 32 years without tasting a McRib. Over three decades spent tasting and eating all other manner of offensive foods—yet a McRib had never passed my lips, until last Thursday. I can’t say I regret my meal. It goes deeper than that: a sense that I gave in, sheeplike, to a national phenomenon whose promises—no matter how meager—were always going to fall short of my expectations.

I knew I wouldn’t like or even understand the McRib, and was content to go the rest of my life without tasting one. Fast food and I have a strained relationship as it is except for a few soft spots: McDonald’s coffee, Whataburger taquitos, Jack in the Box tacos at 1 a.m.

I respect—perhaps even admire—the technology and ingenuity involved in creating an identical meal across thousands of different chain restaurants 365 days a year, 24 hours a day in many cases . . . but the product is rarely something I’m interested in consuming. And those same massive food systems that are, in part, responsible for creating clone versions of Big Macs or Whoppers every single day are also responsible for the woeful industrialization of our agricultural systems and farms. Those fast food chains are, in part, responsible for our nation’s deepening battle against obesity, hypertension, diabetes and a whole host of other health issues.

McRibAnd, quite frankly, the McRib always looked simply disgusting, like a flattened condom stuffed with Ol’ Roy-brand cat food and slathered with untrustworthy sauce between two buns that looked like the plastic set that came with my children’s grocery store set when I was six years old.

To a Texan, the concept of barbecued pork is reserved for a handful of items: pork butts and ribs, both left on the smoker for hours and neither coated in sticky-sweet sauce. We don’t do pulled pork sandwiches here, either, so the idea of a pork sandwich—pulled or not—doesn’t appeal to me either . . . especially one from McDonald’s.

But I let curiosity get the better of me last week when I logged onto Facebook one morning.

“I would like to see you write a complete review on the McRib,” read a request on my wall from frequent commenter Fatty FatBastard. “And it should be the cover story.”

“I would like Tard the Grumpy Cat to come and live with me,” was my hasty reply. (Luckily Fatty is battle-hardened by all the years spend in the EOW comments section.) “You can’t always get what you want.” Besides, I argued, I’d never had one before.

Fatty persisted. “See? Then it would be a completely unbiased review.”

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Less than 24 hours later, I was hitting my third McDonald’s of the afternoon and cursing Fatty’s real name as I searched desperately for one that still had the damn sandwich in stock. Each one I approached beckoned with a sign heralding the glories of the limited-time McRib, yet a closer look at the signs revealed tiny stickers saying simply: “Sold out.”

Along with a keen sense of irritation, my curiosity was growing still stronger. If the stupid sandwiches are sold out everywhere, they must be at least decent—right? People couldn’t be buying out the sandwiches if they tasted like Ol’ Roy.

Finally, I found myself in the drive-thru lane of the McDonald’s on North Main, where a cheerful-sounding Hispanic woman was imploring me through the speaker to add another McRib to my order for only $1.

You have enough McRibs here to tack them on like apple pies? I wanted to yell back at her. Send them to the other McDonald’s so people don’t have to waste $20 worth of gas driving around town like pork-crazed assholes trying to find them!

Instead, I pathetically contemplated actually adding the extra McRib to my order. It’s only one dollar, I reasoned. I deserve it.

I shook my head and snapped out of the disgusting food-as-reward mindset I fall into far too often—a mindset, I might add, that’s once again encouraged by deals such as these at fast food chains such as this one. (Besides, the brownie bites I’d added onto my 1 a.m. Jack in the Box order the night before had been woeful. And those were only $1 too.)

mcrib2Back at the office after nearly an hour on the road, I actually tore into my McRib with a voracity that both appalled and astonished me. A growling stomach was making all of my decisions suddenly, but even after the first few hunger-blinded bites I could tell it had been a mistake.

Here’s the thing: The McRib does not taste terrible, except for the fiddly, fleshy little nubbins extruding from the sides that are meant to represent “ribs.” In fact—full disclosure—I ate the entire thing.

I felt so hollow afterwards that it was as if my stomach had shifted entirely outside my body, as though my abdominal cavity was rejecting it in shame. This was a terrible thing to have eaten and I had no real excuse to do so. It contained no nutritional value whatsoever and unlike the questionable tacos and other junk food fare I occasionally consume, it didn’t even have the benefit of being so delicious as to excuse its negligible health benefits.

The “pork” inside the McRib tastes quite obviously fake. It has a curious spongy texture that allows your teeth to slide into the meat with almost no give whatsoever. It’s not like you’re eating real meat at all, but something materialized on the Holodeck of the Starship Enterprise or a piece of food that’s fast-fading in some airport during the course of the Langoliers. It’s just . . . weird.

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The pickles and onions, with their very real and very appropriate crunch, absolved the meat somewhat of its off-putting texture. But the bread suffered the same fate as the meat, falling apart in my mouth like dust, as if it had never been real in the first place. I spent the next hour trying and failing to understand how there can be any passion around such a dull, lifeless thing. How is there a clamor for the McRib? In what way is it “epic” or “legendary”?

I am left today with the disappointing knowledge that there is a huge segment of my fellow Americans who look forward to this creepy fake meat every year with a hunger that borders on the pathological. I am not judging their taste—taste, after all, is subjective—but rather judging the quality of the food that people have come to revere. This silly, false thing. This vague improvement over potted meat.

I cringe as much as the next person when I hear words like “organic,” “artisan,” or “craft” overused or, worse, misapplied. But I’d far rather suffer a surfeit of foods in our nation that are leaning towards the real end of the spectrum than the fake. Because there is really no excuse for the McRib, and my life is poorer for having tasted it.

 

First published in Houston Press, a Voice Media Group publication.

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74895_10151704726354235_1647209683_nKatharine Shilcutt is a James Beard-nominated food writer and features editor and head Twitter-er at Houstonia Magazine. Best Food Writing 2013 (Da Capo Press) is available here.

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TNB Nonfiction TNB Nonfiction features some of the web's best essays, excerpts of up-and-coming books, self-interviews, profiles, and humor from a wide range of authors. Past and future writers include Emily Rapp, Mira Bartók, Nick Flynn and Melissa Febos, among many others. 

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JULIA GOLDBERG is the Nonfiction Editor. She is a full-time faculty member in the Creative Writing Department at Santa Fe University of Art and Design, teaching a variety of nonfiction and journalism courses. She spent ten years as the editor of The Santa Fe Reporter newspaper, during which time the paper won numerous regional and national awards for writing, design and web innovation. Goldberg’s writing has appeared in numerous state and national publications, including The Rumpus, Salon, Alternet and In These Times. She is a contributing author and editor for Best Altweekly Writing 2009-2010 from Northwestern University Press.

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One Response to “Excerpt of Best Food Writing 2013:
I Ate My First McRib, and I Regret It, by Katharine Shilcutt”

  1. I, too, have never eaten a McRib, and I am a woman of A Certain Age. Thank you, thank you a million times over, for taking that bullet for me. Whenever I am overcome with the thought, “They’re so popular, they must be tasty,” I shall reference your words. Regret. Hollow, terrible regret.

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