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The McRib contains multitudes

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Photo: Michael Stewart

The McRib is back. I haven't been inside a McDonald's in over a decade, but still there is something alluring about this sandwich's compulsion to return year after year -- a porcine revenant. I vaguely recall lifting up the bun of my first (and maybe only?) McRib and absorbing its reshaped contours uncannily recalling something you'd never actually want between two slices of bread: a rack of rib bones. In this era of pulled-pork sandwiches and tacos carnitas, there is something admirable about McDonald's resistance to obvious food trends and insistence on one of its own.

But it's not really a trend, is it? Its inevitable release is always kept a secret -- something to discover, a clandestine project kept literally under wraps consisting of reformed pork product as darkly marinated as a prohibition-era police constable on the take. Its secrecy is part of its charm, its mystery precisely what makes it, presumably, attractive to those who consume it.

I'm Lacan-in' it

In a brilliant Lacanian reading of the McRib, Ian Bogost calls the "sandwich" (sic) the psychoanalytic "symptom" of McDonald's incredible industrialized processes, the recurring stain or tear that can't be contained by the mechanics of desire mobilizing fast food: "McDonald's sells what it does not sell: the conditions of predictability, affordability, and chemico-machinic automated cookery that make its very business viable. When we eat at McDonald's we don't eat its food -- Quarter Pounders or Big Macs or what have you -- so much as we consume the mechanical predictability of its overall offering."

It's a terrific argument, and one that points to the fundamental contradiction undergirding the McDonald's system: on one hand, a fast food empire built on excess and waste -- obesity, landfill, advertising, drive-thru windows and urban sprawl; on the other, a machine that can cook a hamburger patty from frozen in 40 seconds. And while McDonald's now claims that the McRib consists of ground pork meat, it's not hard to remember that this surfeit was once constitutive of the ingredients themselves: offal and more fulsome parts of the hogs ground down to render the inconsumable consumable.

McDonald's is surely a capitalist wonder worthy of awe: a vast, unfathomable network of factory farms, refrigerated warehouses, transportation systems, public relations management, architecture, food service engineering, government lobbying, commercial propaganda and, of course, an impossibly large workforce of underpaid, exploited labour.

What we're made of

In Canada, McDonald's pays minimum wage, which varies by province but hovers around $10/hour. South of the border, where employees make even less, McD's has been facing pressure after helping workers manage their finances by advising them not to pay for heat and take a second job. Yesterday, ThinkProgress revealed that McDonald's health-and-finance advice resource line (called McResource Line, of course) helpfully suggested to the company’s employees that they simply hawk unwanted Christmas presents to "Dig out from holiday debt." Other economical advice from this hotline seems to draw from the very genesis of the reconstituted McRib sandwich itself: when peckish, instead of buying food (that you cannot afford since you work at McDonald's,) try breaking food into smaller pieces to make you feel less hungry.

These moments of gothic candour from the Golden Arches' head offices are, like the McRib sandwich, psychological evidence of an unsustainable social and economic practice. How can you give investment and health advice to people for whom a two-bedroom apartment remains an unattainable dream? We might as well throw in the Wal-Mart store in Canton, Ohio holding a canned food drive for its own employees. Except, of course, in the dreadful, grotesque irony of the Walton brothers' idiom, these workers in need aren't employees, they're "associates."

This labour, inscribed in every Big Mac, every Chicken McNugget and, yes, every McRib sandwich, contains multitudes. It includes the farmers who harvest the Mexican vanilla, the Sri Lankan cinnamon and Amazonian kola nut for every 20-ounce cup of Coke served in a combo. It includes the laid-off factory workers and temporary foreign workers who until last week serviced the Heinz Ketchup plant in Leamington, Ontario. It includes the chemical engineers in Dayton, New Jersey who perfect the taste of McDonald's french fries, special sauces and McCafé coffee blends. Its breadth, complexity and ingenuity spans continents, economic class and all manner of social relations. This labour, this incomprehensible interconnection of human souls, truly, is breathless.

Do you believe in magic?

As breathless as it is invisible. Because who thinks of this labour when it is congealed in a moulded pork nugget between steamed brioche halves and sold for $2.49 CAD? The very constitution of the McRib sandwich defies us to think of anything that went into it at all. It reminds me of the old joke about black flies: nothing but jaws, wings and assholes.

Bogost ends his Lacanian interrogation of the McRib by referencing the talking cure -- the process through which the psychoanalyst helps the patient recognize, and thus dispel, their symptoms by talking through them. Perhaps that's why the growing support for fast food workers' strikes and job actions in the United States is truly frightening corporate giants like McDonald's. Enough, as Thomas Frank alleges in a recent Harper's article, to take out a full-page ad warning that fast food companies might just replace its workers with robots. It's not that they're worried about shaving off the bottom line -- although surely their capitalist, Neolithic instincts kick in somewhat. Profit margins are higher in Europe where McDonald’s workers are paid $12 an hour or more. It's that by making the labour behind the impenetrable corporate veil visible, these workers threaten to "cure" Fast Food Nation for good.

So. I humbly suggest the following: Follow McDonald's financial advice. Break the McRib Sandwich and all its greasy brethren into as small pieces as we can muster. Not to fool our digestive system into feeling full, but to perceive and recognize its modular and multiple parts. See what's inside and reveal it to the world. And maybe the incessant porcine messiah will have finally seen its last comeback tour.

Photo: Michael Stewart

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