The World of Food: The Donut

By Julia Maish |

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“As you ramble through life, Brother,
Whatever be your goal,
Keep your eye upon the doughnut,
And not upon the hole.”
— Margaret Atwood, The Blind Assassin

“Donuts. Is there anything they can’t do?”
— Matt Groening, creator of The Simpsons

It’s National Donut Day! (Or Doughnut — either is correct and both are used.) Not that Americans have any trouble finding excuses to enjoy these fattening but delicious treats — more than 10 billion donuts are consumed in the U.S. annually. But this particular food holiday, celebrated annually on the first Friday in June, is more meaningful than most. The story: World War I was, to say the very least, no walk in the park for American troops, but there was one bright spot: the Salvation Army’s beloved “Doughnut Girls,” who traveled to France to boost the morale of our servicemen with countless free donuts. In 1938, 80 years ago today, this tasty holiday was created to honor their valuable contribution to the war effort.

As with so many culinary innovations, it is unclear when and where donuts originated, but they may have been around since Biblical times — in the Book of Leviticus there is a mention of “cakes mingled with oil, of fine flour, fried.” And of course, many regions and cultures have their own versions of the treats (for instance, the sufganiyot, or jelly donut, is a traditional food associated with Hanukkah). In any event, donuts in one form or another have been popular globally for centuries. (Fun fact: the French sometimes referred to their donuts as Pet de Nonne, or “nun’s farts.”)

It was most likely Dutch immigrants who introduced the donut to America when they brought over their recipe for “oly koeks” (oily cakes) in the mid-19th century. The explanation for their current name is a simple one: the original donut was composed of a ball of cake or dough immersed in boiling pork fat which cooked too quickly on the outside, leaving the inner part raw; it was often hollowed out and filled with chopped walnuts or hazelnuts (hence, the name “dough-nuts”).

By now, you’re probably wondering: how did donuts get their holes? This is believed to have happened in 1847 when a young American ship captain at sea, Hansen Gregory, was munching on a donut and needed both hands to steer. He impaled the donut on the ship’s steering wheel, and the classic version has had a hole ever since.

It was only a matter of time before someone came up with a way to make donuts quickly and in bulk. That someone was Russian Jewish refugee Adolph Levitt, who in 1920 devised his “Wonderful Almost Human Automatic Donut Machine.” This seminal figure in donut history set up shop in New York’s Harlem and his invention was a huge success, later making him a multi-millionaire through his national franchise, the Mayflower Doughnut Shops. He also founded the Doughnut Corporation of America, and his products were a huge hit at the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair.

Donuts have been prominent plot points in many movies and television shows; among them are Homer Simpson’s obsession with the pink sprinkled confections from Lard Lad Donuts (a take-off on the old Big Boy restaurants); Clark Gable’s sardonic newspaperman teaching spoiled heiress Claudette Colbert the right way to dunk a donut in It Happened One Night; Joel McCrea’s slumming movie director spending his last dime on “a coffee and a sinker” in Sullivan’s Travels; Wayne and Garth of Wayne’s World hanging out at the fictional Stan Mikita’s Donuts; and the iconic real-life Randy’s Donuts in Los Angeles, which has served as a location in numerous films, including Iron Man 2, Mars Attacks!, and Earth Girls Are Easy, among many others.

Today, donuts are available just about everywhere, from grocery stores to national chains to diners to high-end artisan shops. So whether you like classic glazed, cake, chocolate, or old-fashioned donuts; fritters, long johns, bear claws, twists, crullers, New Orleans beignets; or jelly or custard-filled Berliners (or Bismarcks, or paczkis), you won’t have to go very far to find them. You can even make your own.  And there are lots of local holiday deals to be had!

By the way, November 5 is National Donut Appreciation Day, so feel free to indulge then, too!