mcdonald's szechuan sauce

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What is up with ‘Rick and Morty’ and Szechuan Sauce?

On October 7, 2017, McDonald’s brought back Szechuan Sauce to their customers for a limited-time run. That turned out to be a fateful decision.

 

Beau Paul

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Szechuan cuisine, or Sichuan cuisine, is a real style of Chinese cooking originating in the province of the same name. But the word Szechuan—specifically, the phrase “Szechuan sauce”—has a very different connotation for the still-massive fan base of the Adult Swim animated sitcom Rick and Morty.

What began as a joke on the series’ season three premiere has gone on to become a real-life metaphor for the toxic fandom and the elements of bullying and harassment that can turn one person’s fave into everybody else’s nightmare.

Here’s how a one-episode bit on a cartoon became the epitome of fan negativity.

What was the Szechuan Sauce joke about?

The whole incident started innocently enough on April Fool’s Day 2017. Without prior announcement Cartoon Network, the home of Adult Swim debuted the series’ Season 3 premiere episode, “The Rickshank Redemption,” on a loop for the entire day.

In the episode, an alien agent of the Galactic Federation is sent into Rick Sanchez’s brain attempting to find the secret to Rick’s portal gun. In the course of accompanying the agent through his memory, Rick makes a detour to McDonald’s in an attempt to score as many containers of the limited edition Chicken McNugget Szechuan Sauce as he possibly can.

The sauce was a limited edition tie-in to the movie Mulan, only made available in 1998, the year the film was released. Throughout the course of the episode, Rick engages in a handful of his characteristic rants about the sauce, particularly calling out the fact that it was McD’s never made it available after the promotion ended. As he said in the episode:

That’s my one-armed man! I’m not driven by avenging my dead family, Morty! That was fake. I-I-I’m driven by finding that McNugget sauce. I want that Mulan McNugget sauce, Morty! That’s my series arc, Morty. Nine more seasons, Morty. Nine more seasons until I get that dipping Szechuan sauce. What is that? For 97 more years, Morty! I want that McNugget sauce, Morty.

While the humor may have been a bit obscure for a casual watcher, the fact that Rick had made an obscure movie tie-in his personal “white whale” was hilarious to the dedicated — and obsessive — hardcore fanbase.

The fans demand their sauce

The joke may have become a minor footnote in a series full of running gags, had the episode premiered in August along with the rest of the season. But the early release gave the fans something to gnaw on without any new episodes to obsess over, and soon fans were pursuing the return of Szechuan sauce to McDonald’s with the same Captain Ahab-esque obsession of their animated idol.

The sauce quickly became a series of memes online and even led some superfans of the show to go through actual McDonald’s drive-thrus and demand the sauce. The craze for the sauce resulted in fan-created recipes, and even an eBay bidding war that saw an original tub of the sauce sell for more than $14,000.

Eventually, or perhaps, inevitably, the word reached McDonald’s — and they decided to get in on the action.

Unfortunately, they were about to seriously underestimate how many fans the show had. And, sadly, how absolutely awful they could be.

McDonald’s brings the sauce … and Rick & Morty fans riot

On October 7, 2017, McDonald’s brought back Szechuan Sauce to their customers for another limited-time run. But this time, they were woefully unprepared for the onslaught of fandom that they were bringing to their doors.

In a November 2017 post on the Cartoon Cuisine blog, writer Jeff McClelland recalled his attempt to score a few packets during New York Comic Con.

“The store I walked to had hundreds of people waiting in a line that snaked out the door,” he wrote. “Bewildered employees were handing out wristbands. An angry manager was trying to get people to leave by telling them that there wouldn’t be enough sauce for everyone.” 

Fans of the show came out in droves across the nation and McDonald’s hadn’t figured on even a fraction of their numbers showing up. Not only was the promo only available for one day, it was only available in limited quantities at certain locations.

Sadly, those that did reach a location where the sauce was supposedly available, only to find it sold out, did not respond in the cool and collected manner one might think an adult animated series fandom might react.

The Daily Dot‘s own coverage noted, “Videos circulating on social media showed lines of outraged fans, in disbelief and disgust that their weekend quest for Szechuan Sauce had been foiled.”

Medium stated that after the sauce ran out, “Fights broke out, staff were verbally abused, riots erupted, and police arrived at multiple locations to quell the uproar.”

The Aftermath: More Szechuan Sauce and a side of Toxic Fandom

Following the day-long debacle Rick and Morty creators Justin Roiland and Dan Harmon hastened to distance themselves from the behavior of their fans, as Polygon reported. And while the show eventually weathered the storm—as it’s now in its seventh season—the Szechuan Sauce incident became the subject of multiple think pieces on the nature of fandom.

That included one from Junkee which declared, “There’s always going to be people who ruin something for everyone, but it increasingly feels like pop culture fandom has gone rotten.”

Even though the series went on to face bigger problems than the nature of its fan base—the show parted ways with creator Roiland following allegations of domestic abuse as well as behind-the-scenes misbehavior—it’s still safe to say that the Szechuan sauce incident will remain a cultural nadir for fandoms of all stripes for quite some time.

As for McDonald’s, they quickly issued an online apology for the poorly planned promotion, which Know Your Meme has screengrabbed for posterity. The company promised to fulfill fans’ demands for more sauce and eventually returned to market in February with 20 million packets available for anyone still desperate to sample the sauce.

The company also released a three-episode podcast entitled “The Sauce,” a knockoff of the popular Serial podcast, featuring then-executive chef Mike Haracz explaining Mickey D’s take on the entire situation.

But how does it taste?

After all the fuss, you would hope that the sauce was as great as Rick said, wouldn’t you?

Alas, the animated super-genius has either very pedestrian taste buds or was just trolling the fan base the whole time. Or perhaps one of the writers just had a memory that doesn’t quite live up to reality.

Reviews of the sauce said the sauce was passable to mediocre. “Szechuan Sauce is both sweet and sour, and the taste reminds me a bit of teriyaki sauce,” Daily Dot reporter Michelle Jaworski wrote. “It grows on you after awhile. The sourness comes through even more if you taste the sauce by itself, but it works surprisingly well with fries. While I could see myself having it again, I probably wouldn’t go out of my way for it.”

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The Daily Dot