The missing McRib: One woman’s quest for holiday happiness

A little more than a year ago, Santa Clarita resident Xanthe Pajarillo, a 27-year-old Air Force veteran and California Institute of the Arts student, stood before her local city council and delivered a passionate plea for help. Her cause? The McRib. As in McDonald’s McRib.

“To be honest,” she said, “the removal of the McRib from the menus has affected my family because every Thanksgiving my family would order a 50 piece Chicken McNugget and ten McRibs. It was like a tradition. And now it’s like my family’s holiday spirit’s kind of messed up and broken.”

“To me,” she continued, “Thanksgiving for my family without this McRib is like a Christmas without snow. It just doesn’t make sense.”

The seasonal McRib had simply not appeared on the menus of any of her local McDonald’s franchises, a crisis that led Pajarillo to petition local government. Video of the meeting took off on the Internet, and Pajarillo became known as the McRib Girl. Blog posts appeared, articles were written, comments were made. Most were positive, but others claimed she was simply a troll or a performance artist, or just plain nuts, and that her love for the McRib was a lie. Was it all a big joke?

“No,” Pajarillo clarifies. “I understand why people think that. First of all, like the way I look, you see a tiny Asian girl with pink hair bringing up this issue that on the surface seems really silly, because they don’t know the entire story.”

The McRib story begins in 1981, eight years before Pajarillo was born. The sandwich—ground pork in the shape of a small rack of ribs with barbeque sauce, pickles and onions on a roll, in case you didn’t know—was the brainchild of McDonald’s Executive Chef Rene Arend, the culinary mastermind behind the Chicken McNuggets.

Since its introduction, the McRib has been an elusive, teasing delight, appearing on menus only seasonally and sometimes not at all. But the sandwich has developed a cult following, and—from Last Week Tonight to the Simpsons to the Larry Sanders Show—it’s become a touchstone of pop culture. The Sanders character Arthur, portrayed in grand fashion by Rip Torn, judiciously compared Winona Ryder to the McDonald’s item: “Like the limited McRib sandwich, scrumptious, hot and hard to get.”

But for Pajarillo, the McRib is more than a sitcom gag. Her story begins in a magical land where the savory offering is beloved.

“It started,” she says, “ back when I was in Germany.”

That’s right, Germany, where the proud schnitzel’s tangy American cousin McRib is served year round. Pajarillo’s parents had emigrated from the Philippines to the States. Her father joined the Army, and brought the family along when he was stationed over seas.

“My mom started working at the German McDonald’s as a food prep,” explains Pajarillo, “and my first memories were of her giving us free McRibs so it kind of started from there and became this family thing throughout the years.”

And then came the holidays of 2015. Her family had been separated due to work, and would be reunited at Thanksgiving. “I said, okay, finally we can all sit down together. So I was like, okay, this year we’re going to have the McRib.”

But there would be no McRib.

“That year it really affected us,” says Pajarillo. “It was building up to this moment we were going to share together. It felt like something was missing, and it felt less special because of that.”

Crestfallen and desperate, that’s when Pajarillo—an Air Force veteran herself—took her grievance to the Santa Clarita City Council.

“I went to the city council because maybe someone in the audience or someone on the council would know somebody in McDonald’s and kind of forward it to them,” she says.

But does anybody really know anybody at McDonald’s? Nobody at the meeting knew anyone at McDonald’s.

As to the process of deciding when and where the McRib will be sold, the company’s Marketing Director for the Southern California Region, Max Gallegos, says that such decisions—decisions that affect so many lives—are up to “the specific market as a whole.” In Southern California, that’s “about 800 restaurants.” A mighty wall of golden arches for one young woman to scale. When Pajarillo contacted the fast food empire, “it was really hard,” she says. “They were just passing me down to the lowest customer service people.”

But plucky Pajarillo wasn’t giving up with her protest. This time around, she looked to a higher source.

“I was inspired by the social movement changes of the ’60s when Bob Dylan and Woody Guthrie would perform, so I felt like that was a way to do it,” Pajarillo explains. She strapped on a guitar, hooked a harmonica around her neck—just like Dylan used to do—and wrote McRib Blues.

“Cause we’ve got McRib blues, and we’ll do what it takes to bring it back on the menu, cause we have a right to eat what we like, McRib is worth the fight”

When the YouTube video she created for the anthem got nowhere, Pajarillo staged a non-violent protest in front of a McDonald’s in Santa Clarita. She taped her mouth shut. A man dressed as a cow joined her. But not even the police showed up. She filmed the event, turned it into the documentary “We Want McRib,” got some more attention, but still, the McRib was a ghost in the wind.

And then this November, Fox News announced the return of the McRib to Santa Clarita, including a new app to help people find the McRib. It was called the McRib Finder.

And so this holiday season, the McRib is back. McDonald’s finally acknowledged Pajarillo’s efforts, even inviting her to perform at a local franchise, and she and her family were able to once again enjoy their traditional ten McRibs for Thanksgiving. But perhaps most meaningful of all, she says she learned something, and, just maybe, made a difference.

“When you stand up for something that’s viewed as really dumb or trivial and other people don’t agree with it, you tend to listen to the negative voice in your head,” says Pajarillo. “[You say], maybe I shouldn’t talk about it because there’s so much judgment.But even though we disagree on things, why can’t we just support each other and stop all the hate?”

A worthy question. We’ll see what happens next year. Are you listening, McRib?