My college education in Iowa City included a lot more than the things I experienced on campus. Living in Currier Hall, my friends and I had to supply our own Sunday night supper and, since most students didn’t have cars in those days, we often headed for Hamburg Inn, not too many blocks away. My mother’s hamburgers were thin patties of ground beef, fried well done and served unadorned. We made sandwiches with them on sliced white bread and garnished them with catsup, mustard, onion and pickle slices. I often wondered why she didn’t make them square to fit the bread. The Inn’s juicy, seasoned patties on their big, soft buns were a whole different matter. There were French fries too, thick and mealy and nothing like Mother’s thin, crunchy shoestring potatoes. And then there were onion rings.
One weekend, a friend with a car took several of us to a little drive-in in Coralville not far from the railroad trestle at Rocky Shore Drive. It was called, prosaically, Lowry’s Drive-in and was owned by the same people who later operated the Carousel Restaurant at a location farther out on the strip. We were urged to try their onion rings, which quickly became one of my favorite side dishes.
I have since learned, among other things, that all onion rings are not created equal. I’ve had some that were even better, and many that were a lot worse. In the early days of their popularity, onion rings were made entirely on location, being sliced, coated and fried fresh on the spot, and there was apparent disagreement about what constituted the ideal onion ring. Some were thickly sliced, others almost as thin as spaghetti. Some were lightly coated with thin, golden crumbs, others heavy with doughy batter. And, as they became more popular and on more menus, the convenience food suppliers got into the act and sold them coated and frozen, ready to cook. There was even a relatively horrible version made with chopped onions and formed into uniform size and shape, a sort of skinny, onion-flavored doughnut.
When we were first married, I learned to make them at home, dipping them into a thin, unsweetened batter, much like the mixture my mother had always used for apple fritters. At that time, unaware of cholesterol, most of us were frying foods in lard, or in that white, hydrogenated vegetable shortening which was about the only alternative available. I’ve tried many different ways of coating onion rings to get just the right results– not too much dough on the outsides, not so delicate that the crust falls off in the fryer. I’ve learned how to get them crisp without cooking the onion to mush, and how to fry them to golden perfection and no further without leaving the onion undercooked and tough. It’s hard to gauge just how long to cook them, as it depends on the thickness of the onion’s layers and its water content. When I bite into an onion ring, the last thing I want to experience is that strip of undercooked onion pulling out of its crust and leaving me holding an empty, greasy shell. The next worse thing is to find my serving of onion rings has wilted into a limp, greasy pile of fried onions and soggy crumbs.
Fortunately, the convenience food people have come up with some nicely seasoned, admirably convenient mixes that we can use on our own freshly sliced onion rings, and that produce satisfying results. I’ve found other uses for these mixes too. Aside from using the resulting batter on other deep-fried foods, I find that shaking those morel mushrooms in a bag with dry onion ring mix, gives them a delicate crispness and delicious flavor (of course, the frying oil must contain quite a lot of real butter for mushrooms.)
As always in America, there seems to be a competition to come up with something newer and better in everything, including onion rings. People eat a lot of onion rings in this country, the ingredients are relatively inexpensive, the production time is short, the profit is considerable (compare the price of an onion with a double order of onion rings). People also like novelty and are usually eager to be one of the first to try out any new food. With all the advertising hype these days, if someone comes up with a significantly different way of making the same old thing, we will flock to the source to give it a try and hope that it is somehow better than before. It seldom is. Pieces of onion coated with batter and fried taste pretty much the same no matter what their shape. Onion petals, onion chips, onion cups, onion roses are nothing more or less than redesigned onion rings. The onion, the coating and the cook have a lot more to do with the result than the shape has.