The Last Onion Ring: communal eating and the illusion of scarcity

Daniel R. Smith

This week I went to dinner in a gastro pub with some friends. It was a solid evening, until the problem of a bowl of communal onion rings had dwindled down to the last lonely one. No one wants to eat it, no body dare take the plunge of social shame that may befall them. Noticing this social tension, the economist at the table said, “I want to write a paper on the last onion ring.” To which I jokily replied, “What to illustrate the economic principle of scarcity in communal eating?”

The conversation went back and forth but something stayed with me: what does the last onion illustrate about food sharing, not so much as a scare good but as a good that is defined as communal but made scarce and therefore a problem for the group of communal eaters. This is the problem of the last onion ring. Defined as ‘for everyone’ but only in so far as ‘others may share’, the last onion ring problem is that of stigma of going against the groups’ imposed obligation to be generous and share. How can sharing maintain itself if there is only one? This question is precisely where the general sociology of meals comes into play.

In his essay on ‘the sociology of the meal’, Georg Simmel observes that eating and drinking is the most basic and necessary act of humans and yet most common to all persons. As it is common to all, it is that which allows them to congregate together. This is strange for Simmel. What is strange is that which binds people together is not on a ‘high plane’ of existence – their ideas and values, dreams or beliefs, art or music, etc. – but rather the simple act of quenching base drives of hunger and thirst. The most communal of all acts is that which is most egotistical and individual:

“What I think, I can communicate to others; what I see, I can let them see, what I say can be heard by hundreds of others – but what a single individual eats can under no circumstances be eaten by another.” (Simmel, 1997:130)

From this Simmel says that despite the lowly nature of eating in the hierarchy of human interest, what emerges is that out of this egoism of eating arises the ability for humans who have absolutely nothing in common beyond this primitive need to eat to commune together.

Therein lies the true significance of human’s sharing food. Human food sharing requires aesthetics and general attitudes of civilised conduct. Simmel gives various detailed examples about ‘how we eat together’ and all the manners, conventions and ‘aesthetics’ of meal times. But he suggests that all the airs and graces are really just a cover up of this individual, egoistic selfishness that surrounds eating being something that one person does and necessarily excludes others from. All dining etiquette allows the fact of individual selfishness to be treated as ‘supra-individual’: knives and forks are your knife or fork but the way we hold them, manners regarding them become shared by us all at a conventional, aesthetic level (e.g. ‘licking the knife is vulgar’, eating from another’s plate is ‘rude’ etc. etc.). All this covers up egoistic individualism.

Where this leaves us with the last onion ring is that the manners cover up is exposed. With onion rings the rule is sharing. But how do we share when eating is egoistic and individual? Sharing may only occur in so far as ‘others can still share’. That is, what the individual consumes must in no way hinder other persons’ ability to do the same. So instead of actually sharing, what communal onion rings demonstrates is, at a social level, the act of egoistic individualism inherent in eating is elevated to an etiquette level of selfishness. Sharing is impossible when it comes to eating. While anthropologists talk of sharing meat as based upon ‘shares’ from the hunt, when it comes to actually eating the shares have been divided: eating one thing necessarily means others cannot eat what I eat. Ergo, the law of the last onion ring is that sharing occurs in so far as we have more than one onion ring.

We may suggest some reasons for why onion rings lend themselves to sharing and the problem of the ‘last one’.Simmel suggests two features for sharing – bowls and lack of utensils. The bowl, for Simmel, is ‘less selfish’ as it opens itself up to persons. In contrast to the plate that is circular and closed off around the individual, the bowl’s spoutlike concave allows it to flower open to all. In this case, the onion rings in the small bowl placed in the middle of the table acts as a flower where each onion ring is a petal to be plucked from each member of the table. Also, the lack of utensils allows the human hand to act as a less ‘civilised’ means of appropriation: all an individual selfish act, it is also the most communal (strangely) because all have the base urge of picking and eating. Those small, round and easily pick-up-able onion rings are low, base, highly uncultured type of food: as anyone may pick them up with their hands, they open themselves up to being ‘the tables food’. Like most ‘pub snacks’ – crisps, nuts, etc. – they’re little, savoury snacks that allow themselves to be anyone’s because they’re so crude.

In this way the last onion ring is that which allows the illusion of sharing to be revealed to us. As they’re anyone’s, we treat the last onion ring as ‘another persons’, thinking that what we’re doing is self-less but really it is confirming – at the level of the group – that self-lessness is dependent upon another person being the selfish one. What this means is that the etiquette of ‘the last onion ring’ is that which reveals scarcity to be an illusion of classical economic thought (maybe?) because out of the selfishness of human needs and wants, the lonely onion ring is that which allows the table to talk, to share banter and enjoy each other’s company:  “…the lowest phenomena and indeed even negative values are not only the gateways for the development of the higher things, but also that it is precisely their inferiority that is the reason why superior things arise.” (Simmel, 1997:134)

Bibliography:

Simmel, Georg (1997), ‘Sociology of the meal’ in Featherstone, Mike (ed.), Simmel on Culture, (London: Sage)

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