Break out your biggest mug, pour the coffee and flex your dunking fingers! The doughnut — that tasty bait for many a staff meeting, the hole-y grail of Homer Simpson, the staple of church socials and office slackers — is 157 years old this month!
So, next time you bite into one of these sweet-tasting circles just remember its storied history. You do know its storied history? "You know, I don’t," admits Dean Leisman, senior vice president of Rigel Corp., a regional franchiser of Krispy Kreme. "I apologize." Lend an ear, then, to a tale of Old World roots and New World dreams. The story of a Dutch immigrant who lost his hazelnuts at sea, then rose to become the hero of the American break room.
OILY CAKES AND RAGING SEAS
"The versions I heard said the Indians used to bake them," recalls Mel Allison, chief baker and director of Quality Assurance at Winchell’s Doughnuts based in Santa Ana, Calif. He is correct. Bakers in colonialera Holland discovered a kind of . . . Neanderthal doughnut, called the olykoek or "oily cake." Until someone invents "lard pie," this stands in history as the worst food name ever. Oily cakes also had a structural flaw: They never fully cooked in the middle. Oily cakes were deep-fried globs of sweet dough with runny, unpleasant centers. The snack that drooled back.
"Then," Allison says, "there’s this story about a ship’s captain named ‘Gregory . . .’ "
Not so fast. The oily cake became the doughnut over in America, where name changes and makeovers have led many to better lives. New England baker Elizabeth Gregory cut the greasy centers out of her oily cakes and filled the holes with hazelnuts. (Hence the name "dough-nut.") But history credits her son with the final innovation.
In 1847, ship captain Hanson Crockett Gregory took a load of his mother’s cakes to sea. Here the legends diverge: Some say Gregory had trouble steering the ship while eating. Some say he simply hated nuts. Some say sailors teased him because he was a captain whose mother still packed his lunch. Whatever the reason, history was made: "Gregory stuck the doughnuts on the handles of the ship’s wheel," Allison says. This act of food impalement established the doughnut as a snack of legend — and sent hazelnuts to a watery grave.
World War I was big for the doughnut. American doughboys were not named for the circular treat, but they did put lots of them away while whipping the kaiser.
"I have pictures of American GIs standing in line, as the Red Cross fries doughnuts in soldiers’ helmets," Allison says. But like many snacks fried by nurses in military hats, doughnuts came to lack pizazz. Back home, they were being massproduced like the Model T — and they tasted just about as good.
"I know this for a fact," Leisman says. "People began dipping them in coffee because early doughnuts were like hockey pucks."
No one knows exactly when doughnuts first laid eyes on the swarthy Colombian beverage known as "coffee." But the doughnut’s cakey taste perfectly complemented coffee’s alkaline bite, and the two made beautiful music together during the Depression.
"We used to say, ‘When times get hard, coffee and a doughnut will satisfy your stomach for a lot less than bacon and eggs,’ " Allison says.
In the 1930s, doughnuts became the currency of the Salvation Army, whose annual Doughnut Days celebrates their doughnut-wielding volunteers. And Vernon Rudolph, after coaxing a secret yeast recipe from a New Orleans chef, opened the first Krispy Kreme shop in Winston-Salem, N.C.
"(Rudolph) found that people loved hot doughnuts," Leisman says, "so he rented a building and began selling them through a hole in the wall." In 1948, Verne Winchell opened Winchell’s Doughnuts in Temple City, Calif., and West Coast commuters brought doughnuts back to the steering wheel.
"Southern wives still made breakfast," Allison says. "But out West, men would have coffee and a doughnut driving to work." That same year, William Rosenberg established The Open Kettle in Quincy, Mass., which two years later changed its name to Dunkin’ Donuts.
An unsinkable nature allows doughnuts to adapt to this age of Atkins.
"We’re adding a low-carb Winchell’s doughnut in July," Allison says. "It tastes quite good. Less sugar than the original, but it puffs up nicer, with more lightness."
Krispy Kreme plans to add a diabetically friendly lowsugar brand soon.
"We’ll still keep our original recipe," Leisman says. "I mean, we were given taste buds for a reason."
Food gurus sometimes forecast the demise of the doughnut, but Allison believes they will last forever.
"Buy a box of doughnuts," Allison says. "Walk into your business, or wherever you go. Oh, you’ll hear ‘I can’t eat this.’ But they’ll start to break off little pieces. And one by one, those doughnuts will disappear."