Desperate for Donuts

Frosty's donuts
Frosty’s donuts

Every day, it seems, is national something or other day, but June 5 just happens to be National Donut Day. I am a donut lover from way, way back, when I worked at Dunkin’ Donuts during those halcyon times when each store had honest-to-God bakers who made donuts fresh every six hours. I ate more donuts than I care to admit, but because I was biking to work—ten miles round trip—I was fit and lean.

In 2008, I wrote a longish essay called “Desperate for Donuts.” In honor of National Donut Day, here are some excerpts, slightly edited,  from that piece:

The Good and the Bad

Ironically, they are the perfect shape—a circle, round like a mandala, the symbol of eternity—and this should make them the perfect food. But fried in oil, perhaps drenched in glaze, covered with sugar, frosted, or even plain, they are not good for you. Not even a little bit.

Then there is their status. Jill Lightner, a West Coast writer, has called them the “dumb blonde of the pastry world. ” Patric Kuh, another West Coast writer, described them as a “street thug…strutting past Madeleine and Éclair.” There are also all the donut/cop jokes that have become so ubiquitous they are now clichés.

But…there is something about fried dough that transcends its lowly status, that crosses class lines, that worms its way into people’s appetites, even though they might not like to admit it. Simply put, fried dough is delicious, and donuts are the epitome of fried dough. There is nothing more sublime, say, than a raised donut, newly fried, dipped in glaze, and eaten just as soon as that glaze has dried.

A Brief History of Donuts

“When it comes to donuts New England is a place apart.” —John T. Edge, Donuts, An American Passion

New England can reasonably claim to be the epicenter of the American donut world, and its donut tradition stretches all the way back to the Pilgrims, who, after staying in Holland, brought fried dough, which the Dutch called olykoeks (oily cakes), to the New World. These ur-donuts had no holes, were yeasted, and had raisins, apples, and almonds in them. John T. Edge…has described them as “deep fried fruitcake.” A daunting thought, but I would certainly give them a try if the opportunity presented itself. Naturally, as the Dutch settled New York, they brought their olykoeks to this region as well, and fried dough had a firm foothold in what would become the thirteen colonies.

According to legend, Sea Captain Hanson Crockett Gregory, from Rockport, Maine, invented the hole in the donut sometime in the mid-1800s. Out at sea, with a holeless, olykoek-type donut in one hand and the ship’s wheel in the other, he supposedly stuck the donut on the spoke of the wheel, thus inventing the donut hole. Is this true? Only Captain Gregory knew for sure, but he somehow managed to convince the Boston Post his story was true and was duly accorded fame for his “invention.”

From there, donuts, complete with holes, went international, and they did so in a most unusual way—they went to France during World War I with the Salvation Army. Here again, we have the stuff of legend. In 1917, four Lassies (as the women in the Salvation Army were called) traveled to the camp of the 1st Ammunition Train in France. The soldiers wanted pie, but there were no bake ovens for the Lassies to use. However, they did have a kettle, oil, and the ingredients for donuts. From that first day, when two of the Lassies fried 150 donuts, word spread, and other Lassies soon began making donuts for the troops. Eventually, Lassies, often only two of them, would go on to make as many as 2,500 in one day for the grateful soldiers. Hence, the term “doughboy” was born. You might die miserably in the trench or be poisoned by mustard gas, but at least there were donuts to be had before the horrors of battle. It wasn’t much, but it was something.

A Donut Tour

“We devalue the things that give us pleasure.” —John T. Edge

I have a dream, a fantasy of sorts, that John T. Edge, a food writer who hails from the South, would come as far north as central Maine and that we would go on a donut tour together. We would start in Augusta, at Bolley’s Famous Franks, early in the morning when their donuts…are still warm. Taking time to savor Bolley’s tender, old-fashioned cinnamon donuts, we would then hurry to Frosty’s in Gardiner…marveling at the oh-so-fresh honey-dipped donuts.

From there it would be off to Willow Bake Shoppe in Rockport, whose cake donuts are impossibly tender and whose chocolate donuts are satisfyingly rich. I would perhaps introduce “wicked good” into Edge’s vocabulary.  After all these donuts we would need a bit of a break, and Camden, on a sparkling day, would be the perfect place to rest. Finding a bench in the park overlooking the shimmering harbor, we would discuss the various donuts we had eaten, and I expect Edge would want to compare them to donuts he has eaten in other parts of the country. But in the end, Edge would return to a line from his own Donuts: An American Passion. That is, when it comes to donuts, New England is a place apart.


7 thoughts on “Desperate for Donuts”

  1. Thanks for answering a question I’ve wondered about. Years ago when we traveled to Maine on family vacation, we were surprised at how many places there were selling donuts. I would’ve guessed they were a Southern invention. Now I know the story!

    1. Nice piece! My mouth was watering. Those koeksisters looked oh so good. And funny how one baker wouldn’t share the recipe while the other would. Perhaps rooibos tea is an acquired taste. 😉

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