Note: You already know and love Will Gordon, the Bottom Shelf guy. Since we all want more Will on the site, we've handed him another column: the fast food beat (formerly written by John, who's now drinking way more soda than he should). Every week we'll hear from Will about the latest and greatest from the drive-thru window. —The Mgmt.
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Quite a few moons ago when I was a single man and therefore an incorrigible liar, I fell into the charming and fruitless habit of telling strange women I was a helicopter pilot. It never worked, but I still stand by my scam, because it beat telling the truth at a time when I was a cubical-caged copy monkey at a travel agency catering to the frugal and nervous. My dream girl wasn't looking for ways to rephrase "Spend this Flag Day in potentially sunny Jacksonville, where the buffets are bottomless and the natives are well rested!"
I figured helicopter pilot was the perfect balance of exciting and esoteric, since everyone knew it sounded cool but no one knew enough to expose me with follow-up questions. So while I can't say this fake career path ever got me a date, it allowed me to avoid conversations that petered out with "Oh, you know ... just like a regular doctor-doctor, sort of like the guy on House, except sometimes I also solve crimes, if that's more your thing."
Now I have a girlfriend, so I don't need to lie about my current job, but I still inflate my resume whenever I manage to trick someone into asking what my first job was.
I claim to have entered the workforce as a carnie, because after you've tricked someone into asking about your first job, it's unsporting to regale them with stale tales of burger flipping and soda jerking without at least hinting at knowledge of the darker carnival arts. I was merely a second-class concessions scamp at a third-rate amusement park, but this gig did put me in unclean proximity to a few dudes who existed on the fringes of the carnie world. Hey, baby, you ever meet a man who's met a man who's lived under a Tilt-a-Whirl?
But we'll get to that some other time. We're here today to talk about the powerful allure of barbecued pork ribs, which I first encountered at Whalom Park.
The park hosted a lot of family reunions and company picnics and sundry other retreats from whatever life is more depressing than waiting in line for the privilege of giving a hungover teenager actual paper money for cotton candy. These outings were headquartered in a picnic grove adjacent to the central grounds for skeeballing and rollercoasting, and they were primarily hot dog and hamburger affairs. But the higher rolling outfits would spring for the deluxe "barbecue" menu, in which the burgers and dogs were outshone by grilled chicken and well-past-parboiled ribs finished over butane-pickled charcoal.
The best part of the job (if you didn't have a connection in the beer tent) was foraging for post-picnic leftovers, and we all loved barbecue days. The chicken was actually pretty good, but our parents grilled us chicken twice a week; the real draw was the ribs, which were almost certainly terrible but a rare and cherished treat nonetheless.
Better ribs are easier to come by in these adult days, but I still eat them less often than I should, because even the biggest rib proponent has to admit that they're a pain to prepare, and the lazy slob in me—which is to say, all of me but the hair and nails—sometimes finds them too much bother to even eat.
Ribs are awesome, but ribs are also a barbaric mess. Which is why we have the McRib. Yes, McDonald's has once again deigned to trot out its porky show pony for a limited run, much to the delight of its vocal minority of superfans and much to the chagrin of the strange cadre of Internet people with "Born to Lash Back" tattooed across their typing knuckles. To me, the only thing weirder than getting overly excited about the McRib's occasional couple-month stand is getting overly vexed about the overexcitement.
Part of the McRib's appeal is its scarcity. McDonald's keeps it locked up most of the year, and it doesn't have much competition when it is around. There's not enough pork in the fast food world, so the pigavores among us are just grateful for any swinewich we can get. This made me skeptical of the McRib's real merits, even though I'm one of the people who gets excited when it rolls back around; my personal McRib memories are happy but foggy, and I wasn't positive it'd taste as good as I'd remembered when scrutinized in the sober light of day.
One McRib alternative is the Rib-Shaped Pork Sandwich found at your better 7-Elevens. I'm a big fan of the 7-Eleven sandwich case, so I smuggled one of these endearingly named numbers into McDonald's for a side-by-side taste test.
There's no way a premade microwaved sandwich is going to be better than a freshly assembled one, but I thought the Rib-Shaped would be a good point of reference. Yes, McDonald's version will be better, it can't help but be, but will it be better enough to brag about?
It wasn't a fair fight, because the Rib-Shaped turned out to be even worse than you'd expect. Again, I say this as a 7-Eleven sandwich advocate who understands the limitations of the genre. But the R-S bread was gummy and the meat was rubbery, and while it did have a surprising and commendable pork flavor, it was undersauced and terminally bland. The texture was terrible, and the flavor was only fair in a "Hey, this is pork, and I like pork" way.
The McRib, however, is a nice fast-food sandwich. It costs $2.99, which is only 50 cents more than the 7-Eleven porktrocity, and it's very thoughtfully prepared for that price. The sauce was abundant (maybe overly so), and the pickles and onions were evenly distributed along the meatscape.
The bun comes warm and looks griddled, but my tongue didn't notice the difference. The interior of the bread may as well have been dappled with painted-on brown spots that serve no more purpose than the faux grill scars on steamed proteins. But still, the bread was fine. It was pillowy and bland and well suited to holding the meat and absorbing the sauce.
The McRib ad campaign revolves around sauciness, which is mildly perplexing because the ads never actually say anything about the sauce other than that it is, in fact, present. What are we to make of a sauce to which McDonald's doesn't even assign an ambiguously positive food adjective? Shouldn't our fast food sauces be "zesty" or "bold," and in extreme circumstances even "kickin'"?
But marketing aside, the sauce is pretty good. It's nothing special, but it's like a nice kind of sweetened ketchup. It elevates the meat by overshadowing it. Whereas the otherwise lamentable Rib-Shaped at least tasted like pork, the McRib meat might as well have been chicken.
That's OK, though, because the sauce is good and so is the pork's texture. It's mushy, which doesn't sound attractive until you realize the only reasonable alternatives are tough and rubbery. There are good mushy foods out there—foie gras and frozen yogurt, for example, if you're broad enough with your definition. The McRib is also a pretty handsome sandwich. The interior of the meat is a reassuring gray, like fast-food pork should be, rather than the malevolent orange of the 7-Eleven version.
I try not to get caught up in nostalgia and hoopla, but I liked my first McRib of the season. If you keep your expectations tempered and stay mindful of what a hassle it is to actually cook or pay for real ribs, I bet you will too.