Sweet Delight

I’m going to eat the Princess Doughnut! It’s puffy and creamy!

Sweet Delight

The humble doughnut has a convoluted past that involves Dutch immigrants, Russian exiles, French bakers, Irving Berlin and Clark Gable.

The doughnut proper (if that’s the right word) supposedly arrived in the US under the unappetizing Dutch name of olykoeks, “oily cakes”.

In the mid-19th century, Elizabeth Gregory, a New England ship captain’s mother, made a wicked deep-fried dough that cleverly used her son’s spice cargo of nutmeg and cinnamon, along with lemon rind. Some say she made it so son Hanson and his crew could store a pastry on long voyages, one that might help ward off scurvy and colds. In any case, Mrs. Gregory put hazelnuts or walnuts in the center, where the dough might not cook through, and in a literal-minded way called them doughnuts.

Her son always claimed credit for something less than that: putting the hole in the doughnut. Some cynical doughnut historians maintain that Captain Gregory did it to stint on ingredients, others that he thought the hole might make the whole easier to digest. Still others say that he gave the doughnut its shape when, needing to keep both hands on the wheel in a storm, he skewered one of his mom’s doughnuts on a spoke of his ship’s wheel. In an interview with the Boston Post at the turn of the century, Captain Gregory tried to quell such rumors with his recollection of the moment 50 years before: using the top of a round tin pepper box, he said, he cut into the middle of a doughnut “the first doughnut hole ever seen by mortal eyes”.

The first doughnut machine came along in 1920, in New York City, when Adolph Levitt, an enterprising refugee from czarist Russia, began selling fried doughnuts from his bakery. Hungry theater crowds pushed him to make a gadget that churned out the tasty rings faster, and he did! By 1931, Adolph Levitt’s machines were earning him a dreamy $25 million a year, mostly from wholesale deliveries to bakers around the country. A company spokesman breathlessly reported that Levitt’s machine had pulled the doughnut “out of the mire of prejudice that surrounded the heavy, grease-soaked product . . . and made it into a light, puffy product of a machine.”

Doughnuts hit the big time in 1934, when they were billed as “The Hit Food of the Century of Progress”, and churned out to the masses by up-to-the-minute machines at the Chicago World’s Fair. The same year, Clark Gable showed Claudette Colbert how to dunk a doughnut in the screwball classic, It Happened One Night.

Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert in It Happened One Night (1934)
Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert in It Happened One Night (1934)

It was in the 1930s, too, and half a country away from Levitt’s busy Harlem bakery, that a Frenchman named Joe LeBeau made his way up from New Orleans to Paducah, Kentucky. Probably the hard times led him to sell his secret recipe (written out longhand on a slip of paper), and the name Krispy Kreme, to a local store owner named Ishmael Armstrong, who hired his nephew, Vernon Rudolph, and put him to work selling the treats door-to-door.

In his 1942 Army musical, Irving Berlin romanticized the doughnut further with a soldier who loses his heart at Broadway’s Stage Door Canteen and eats his way through some anxious waiting: “I sat there dunking doughnuts till she caught on.”

Sweet Delight

Little bears are feasting on pink doughnuts 🙂 long john doughnuts full of cream goodness 🙂 and cronuts. Pretend ones, apparently. Did you know that the cronut, a hybrid doughnut/croissant, made its debut at Dominique Ansel’s bakery in Soho in May 2013? And they have a registered trademark on it? Although it hasn’t stopped other bakeries from using the name. Dominique Ansel’s cronut set off quite a craze. Even today, the lines start outside the bakery as early as 1 hour prior to opening. If you get there at opening time, the chances are, you have missed out!

The French Cruller and the Doughnut
The French Cruller and the Doughnut

If the French Cruller were a woman, she’d be a princess — the most perfect princess ever conceived, though to call her a “doughnut” is an insult to her station. The very word is too coarse to capture her sweet, airy delicacy, all fluted lines and honeyed gloss. Cake and yeast doughs, mere commoners among royalty, can be wrestled into any number of pedestrian doughnuts, even the staid old-fashioned, for those bakers lacking imagination. But, as her admirers will tell you, the cruller’s dough is unique to her. And although sadly she’s been more difficult to find than she once was, her scarcity only adds to her allure. What truly worth having is not worth pursuing? In this new world of candied bacon and (ugh) cronuts, she’ll remain ever cosmopolitan and classy. She is French, after all.

If the old-fashioned doughnut were a man, he’d wear a rumpled tan raincoat with tan slacks. He might drive a late-model Ford, with coffee stains on the driver’s-side seat. He’s a sturdy doughnut in a world of croissants and French crullers, and proud of it. His crunchy brown exterior masks a soft core, qualities completely out of place among today’s hot pink icing and rainbow sprinkles, but the very character traits that inspire fierce devotion among his admirers. He’s never one to brag, but his friends will tell you that when it comes to dunking, there’s no doughnut in the case that stands up to a cup of hot coffee better. Sure, some people call him a bore, but he’s got a wild side. There’s even a rumor out there that he experimented with glazes and swirl toppings in the ’70s. In the end they must not have been suited him: He is old-fashioned, after all.

Story from The Smithsonian and Boston Globe.

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