Actually, Onion Rings Are Carnival Food, Not an Everyday Side Dish

Onion rings should be a fringe gag like deep-fried Oreos, not just a desperate alternative to French fries.
March 4, 2019, 8:09pm
onion rings in basket
Photo: Getty Images

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I feel like I always order onion rings by accident. I'm sitting in a drive-thru, or waiting in a lonely Burger King queue, when one of the neon placards on the digital menu piques my interest.

"Ooh, onion rings! It's been a minute since I've had onion rings."

It's true, it has been a minute since I've had onion rings. In fact, I reckon that my onion ring consumption rotates on a strict once-every-18-months cycle, because apparently it takes me more than a year to forget that onion rings are invariably disappointing. That is the fundamental truth of the foodstuff: You don't actually want onion rings. Nobody does. It is the Jedi Mind Trick of side dishes.


We solved the question for the ideal hamburger accoutrement long ago, when Thomas Jefferson asked for "potatoes served in the French manner" back in 1802. There is a real craft to French fries; even Michelin-starred chefs dip them in duck fat and serve them with parsnips, and someday there will be a genuine civil war between McDonald's fries devotees and those of us who think McDonald's fries are totally OK, but nothing to write home about.

French fries have earned the cultural scrutiny, because French fries are delicious. But search your memory for a time where you've had a genuinely engrossing onion ring argument—one where you claimed that Jack In The Box's onion rings are superior to what you can find at Arby's, or turned your nose up to those who preferred a thicker cut, or a waffled texture. You can't, because fast food onion rings are all effectively the same. The reason they're on the menu is to get rubes like me to pay a little bit more for my side of deep-fried carbohydrates every once in a while. The restaurant industry is literally capitalizing on my consumer boredom. It's kind of genius when you think about it.

And look, I'm not saying you need to launch all of our onion rings into the sun. I actually think onion rings do have a purpose; the problem is that the foodstuff has been perennially misunderstood for as long as they’ve been on the menu. Onion rings might always be a damp disappointment as a French fry substitute, but do you know what they would be absolutely great at? Standing in as one of the greasy, hazelnut-brown, deep-fried stunt foods found at county fairs.


Deep-fried Oreos! Deep-fried Klondike bars! Deep-fried pizza! The stuff you get extremely excited about when you're nine-years-old and think that all food should taste the same—this is the category in which onion rings belong, and in which they’d thrive.

Let’s start with the shape. You're eating a weird hollow circle, a food with much more circumference than substance. I'd say that 80 percent of the reason that we're attracted to onion rings is how they look, in exactly the same way our lizard brains tell us to buy cotton candy or funnel cakes. It's an aesthetic that screams, "You should eat me out of a craven curiosity after getting off of a Tilt-a-Whirl." It's a shame that we've let that reality get away from us.

We owe it to ourselves to set things straight, and empower onion rings as the fringe gag they were always meant to be. We'd effectively relieve the onion ring of responsibilities like "tasting good," and instead ask them to simply be a gonzo, ill-considered but somewhat enjoyable thing to put in your body. Because truly, that is why we eat onion rings. Even now, nearly a century after onion rings were invented, and long after they've been enshrined as the prototypical second side for hamburger dining, onion rings still retain this sense of precarious exoticism. Ordering onion rings, much like growing a beard or buying a leather jacket, is one of the many mild ways we try to spice up our otherwise mundane existences. They provide a brief moment during an everyday dinner where things seem, ever so briefly, as though they are different. They're not, of course. Everything is the same; you're just eating a slightly worse fried vegetable than you normally do. But that kind of benign exhilaration is the stuff I live for.

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So I call on you America. Let's amicably dethrone the onion ring from its place as the nation's institutional Second Side. Move onion rings to where they spark joy the most; as a dumb thing to order when you're feeling restless and bored. I understand that it takes a lot of work to untangle established norms, but think of how much we have to gain, and you'll know that this is a revolution we can all believe in. My heart breaks when I think of all the sides that onion rings have gate-kept for so long. When the scientists finally unearth the secrets of interdimensional travel, the first universe I'm visiting is where McDonald's serves up corn-on-the-cob, or mashed potatoes, or hell, fried pickles when you're not feeling French fries.

It is in that universe, where you will get your onion rings fix when you actually want it: every 18 months, standing in line at the county fair.