Stopgap: stäp-gap, n., something that serves as a temporary expedient.
The stopgap. Usually when we think of a stopgap, we think of emergency government spending to bail out some overextended and underfunded bureaucracy. But for our nation's hog farmers, the term has a more toothsome ring.
It's called the McRib sandwich.
Introduced to the American piehole in 1981, the McRib sandwich must be one of the most mysterious products ever served with a Coke and a side of fries.
A boneless pork patty topped with onions, pickles and a sweet barbecue sauce — you'd think the McRib would be a hit. Who cares that the thing doesn't have any bones? This sauce-drenched patty, formed to ape the shape of a side of ribs, meets all three of our nation's nutritional needs: It's salty. It's fatty. It's sweet.
What more could we ask for?
And yet soon after the McRib went national, McDonald's pulled the pork burger off the menu, leaving the rest of us to wonder: By what right?
The easy answer is that McD's axed the McRib because it wasn't a seller. Sounds plausible — and yet, if it was such an economic clunker, why has this burger spawned a litter of Web sites chronicling McRib sightings and lobbying for its return?
It's a mystery for the ages. And like any great mystery, it has birthed a number of theories.
Here's my second-favorite theory: The McRib, though popular in the homeland's heartland, is too porky — a veritable Achilles heel when it comes to marketing the sandwich in Muslim nations. Though I like this theory's air of global intrigue, it doesn't stand up to scrutiny. If McDonald's were really worried that its products wouldn't translate to other cultures, then why are lamb Big Macs such a hit in majority Hindu India?
Here's my favorite theory: It's 1981. Ronald Reagan has recently been elected president and the nation's awash in pork. Supply is high; demand is low. In an effort to right the nation's economic ship, McDonald's introduces the McRib, buying up surplus pork and saving the U.S. from certain economic decline. Once the hog farmers were back in balance, McDonald's discontinued the McRib.
What really gives this theory legs is the fact that since the McRib disappeared, McD's has periodically reintroduced the sandwich on a limited-engagement basis. Smoothing out the peaks and troughs in the nation's hog market? Stranger things have happened.
This is no joke. No less august a publication than the South Bend Tribune ran a story on February 3, 1999, under the headline: "McDonald's brings back McRib to help farmers."
What's more, McDonald's just won't let the thing die. They've concocted several shadow Web sites devoted to the McRib, including: mcrib.com, which is devoted to something called the McRib Farewell Tour 3; and another site devoted to the "Boneless Pig Farmers Association of America" (www.bonelesspigs.org/bonelesspigs_MMH.swf).
(Does Paul Newman know?)
I don't think I've had a McRib since, oh, 1985. (And I must say, I didn't really miss it.) But I managed to catch the sandwich this past week, on the last day of its month-long tour of our nation's digestive tract. That salty pressed pork patty, made moist by barbecue sauce and pickle juices, brought back memories of misspent Saturday afternoons.
Only something was different. Five minutes after I'd polished off my McRib, large fries and Dr Pepper, I felt my finger begin to swell and tighten. My head grew warm, and my mouth felt like my own private oil slick.
At first I thought my blood pressure might be rising, but now I know better: Hog futures are up.
Seen a foodstuff you're too timid to try? Malcolm will eat it! E-mail particulars to firstname.lastname@example.org