Can the United States Army claim credit for the McRib?
That bizarre fast-food creation has long been the subject of cultish adoration and surprisingly credible conspiracy theories (like the one that speculates its mysterious appearances are timed to low pork prices).
But the best speculation about the McRib may be a new theory about its origins: that it’s part of our lives thanks to the United States Army’s quietly revolutionary food lab, located in Natick, Massachusetts…
“What the Army develops is the backbone,” Anastacia Marx de Salcedo says. “The private companies make it more palatable for the consumer.”
She’s the author of Combat-Ready Kitchen: How the U.S. Military Shapes the Way You Eat, a new book that tracks Army food research’s wide influence on the culture at large. It’s a rollicking, yet encyclopedic, look at the Army’s role in everything from industrialized meats to energy bars. And that includes the restructured-meat masterpiece known as the McRib.
So, who gets credited for developing restructured meat?
…Marx de Salcedo identifies Dr. Roger Mandigo as one contender, who told Marx de Salcedo that in 1970, “the project was funded by the National Pork Council with the pork producers check-off fund … our original restructured pork was shaped like chops; McDonald’s adapted them for their McRibs.” Marx de Salcedo also notes the work of Dr. Dale Huffman, a professor who developed a restructured pork chop in 1969 that he originally tried to sell to Burger King.
But the most interesting contender might be…John Secrist, a food scientist at the Natick Soldier Center for Research and Development. That’s the place where the US Army develops its groundbreaking food for the troops as part of its Combat Feeding Program…Secrist told Marx de Salcedo that in the ’60s, Natick asked him and his team to develop a cheaper version of steaks and chops.
The Army then partnered with a meat flaking company in Ohio in order to break down meat and reassemble it into the meatlike blobs that are familiar today in the form of the McRib. Natick enlisted many meatpackers to do trial runs to see if the technology was viable, and as a result, it made its way to the private sector. “Denny’s used our restructured beefsteak in their restaurant,” Secrist said, “and McDonald’s McRib is as close to our product as you can get.”
The Army didn’t sit in McDonald’s kitchen and tell the chefs how to season their gloriously weird ribs. But Marx de Salcedo argues that they did provide the driving force to make restructured meat a commercial reality. Even Mandigo, the food scientist often credited with the McRib’s technology, told Salcedo that “the military allowed us to use the processes they developed.”
At least we can forget any stories about the McRib being developed at Area 51 from extraterrestrial technology, alien animals.
Or is that what we’re supposed to do?