“Are you watching The Last Dance?” Steve, my editor, asked me in Slack.
I pounded out a three-word response. “OH HELL YES!”
Considering the conversation online, it’s fair to say that millions of people are equally enthusiastic about the docuseries. I guarantee I’m not the only late-80s / early-90s kid who’s already watched every episode twice. I remember sitting around during library study hours from ’89 through ’92, arguing with my friends about Air vs. Magic or Scotty vs. Rodman (I was a pretty big Rodman fan, even when he was a Piston) or overstating the chances our beloved Seattle Supersonics had against any of the league frontrunners.
I also remember the absolute onslaught of products related to Michael Jordan back then. It was more than just posters and shoes, folks. MJ picked our underwear (Hanes), our energy drinks (Gatorade), and our batteries (oh, you forgot this film-noir Rayovac spot?)
Using The Last Dance as an excuse to dive down a few food-meets-sports-meets-mass-capitalism rabbit holes, I started looking into MJ’s pre-game meals, favorite foods, restaurant ventures, and workout diets. Which soon brought me to MJ’s McDonald’s commercials. There are a lot. Including this gem from 1991, after the Bulls’ first championship run.
I knew immediately I had to recreate the McJordan Special — basically a Quarter Pounder with smoked bacon and BBQ sauce. The “special” part being the long-discontinued “McJordan BBQ Sauce.” Though you might not remember it, I did. And it apparently had enough fans for a leftover industrial-sized bottle of the stuff to sell for $10k back in 2012. With my nostalgia centers whirring, I stepped into the kitchen.
McJordan BBQ Sauce
This is the crux of this recipe so it’s where I decided to start. Pretty crazy that McDonald’s hasn’t brought this one back from retirement, actually — especially considering the success of the Rick and Morty campaign. I found the label with a little digging, so I knew I’d be able to recreate the base recipe somewhat accurately and then trust my sense memory to help me dial it in from there. I dropped all of the thickeners, coloring agents, and self-stabilizers but followed the rest of the recipe as closely as possible.
For “spices,” I’m using cayenne pepper and smoked paprika. For “natural flavorings,” I’m using MSG because that is literally what “natural flavorings” means. And for the “hickory smoke flavor,” I’m using — and I’m sure this is a departure from the original — actual hickory smoke.
- 14-ounce can Pureed Tomatoes
- 1/4 cup Dark Brown Sugar
- 1/4 cup Molasses
- 1/4 cup Apple Cider Vinegar
- 1 tbsp. Garlic Powder
- 1 tbsp. Onion Powder
- 1 tbsp. Smoked Paprika
- 1 tsp. Cayenne
- 1 tsp. White Pepper
- 1 tsp. Sea Salt
- 1/2 tsp. MSG
Add all the ingredients into a small pot and place it on low heat on the stove. Bring to a bare simmer and cover.
I have one of those handheld smokers. I pack the bowl with some dried hickory and smoke up the pot with the lid on until smoke is billowing out the sides.
I leave the lid on and let it simmer for a good ten minutes. After that, I simmer and keep stirring occasionally, until the sauce is reduced by about half. Or until it looks like this…
So, yeah, this is really just a Quarter Pounder with smoked bacon and BBQ sauce. They also released this burger in Boston as the “Big 33” when Larry Bird won his championships. So it’s not like Mike had a certain Carolina ‘cue he loved that the McD’s test kitchen chefs recreated. Still, it’s fun to take a fast-food staple and give a bit of polish.
Here’s what I used for this burger…
- 4-ounces Ground Beef (chuck and short rib mix)
- 2 slices American Cheese
- Half Yellow Onion
- Spicy Deli Pickle
- 2 slices thick-cut Smoked Bacon
- Medium Mustard
- Sesame Bun
- Unsalted Butter
- Garlic Powder
- Vegetable Oil
- Sea Salt
- White Pepper
Oh, looky who got a Kitchenaid with a meat grinder as a Quarantine Gift! And, let me tell ya, it’s a game-changer in the hamburger-making at my house.
For these patties, I’m going with a classic 80/20 mix using chuck for the lean and short rib for the fat. Basically, I slice one-inch cubes of each (I weigh out the amount of meat I’ll need first). I put those cubes into a ZipLock, making a single layer, and then lay that in the freezer along with the grinder screw and knives from the grinder. I leave them in the freezer for about 30 minutes.
Then, I assemble the meat grinder, turn the Kitchenaid to “medium” speed, and start feeding the meat in one chunk at a time.
Once that’s all fed through, you’re left with a pebbly grind. I weight out four-ounces or a “quarter” pound patty and create a very loose ball of meat.
I’m going to smash these in a cast-iron skillet, so I don’t want to pack the grind too much.
Next, I get my bacon going. I add two slices to a cold pan and put it on medium heat. I also add a tablespoon of water into the pan to help render off the fat. At the end of the day, this is just frying bacon until it looks like the photo below. McDonald’s was notoriously bad at bacon when I was a kid, so this is a chance for a big step up.
I set the bacon aside on a paper towel to leach out excess fat.
In the meantime, I use a mandolin to thinly slice my yellow onion and pickle. Then I butter my sesame seed buns and sprinkle them with garlic powder before toasting them off in a pan, a la Texas toast because that seems thematically consistent.
The only thing I’m really cooking is the patty. I get a cast-iron skillet ripping hot with a small glug of vegetable oil.
As soon as it’s smoking, a place the ball of ground beef in the middle of the skillet and use a large spatula to, well, smash it down. Since this is a Quarter Pounder, I leave the patty about 1/4-of-an-inch thick.
I immediately hit the patty with a good pinch of sea salt and fine white pepper. After about 30 to 45 seconds, the patty will be ready to flip. Use a large, metal spatula to get under the patty and flip with confidence. It’ll still be a very loose grind but should hold its form.
The other side needs barely 30 seconds to cook. I remove the patty directly to the bun with the cheese already in place.
So, construction on an early ’90’s era McJordan Special is…
- Bottom Bun
- McJordan BBQ Sauce on Top Bun
And there you have it! The McJordan Special! Granted, you could get this at McDonald’s by hacking the menu. Just order a Quarter Pounder with Cheese with bacon and BBQ sauce. But, this is a pretty easy and very satisfying burger to make at home, too. And easy to tweak. At the end of the day, it’s a bacon cheeseburger with a tangy, sweet, and slightly spicy BBQ sauce. Not exactly the breakfast of champions but definitely a nice bit of DIY gluttony while you watch episodes five and six of The Last Dance again.
Pretty accurate looking, right? Sadly, paper hoop not included.