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.

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