Food for Thought: Dunkably delicious donuts

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EL PASO, Texas (KTSM) — We “donut” necessarily think of airy pastries with a conspicuous hole in the center as a symbol of democracy, but donuts have an interesting political history that have come — well — full circle. 

According to James I. Deutsch, author of “Dunkers and Donuts in American Popular Culture,” the human species has been happily combining flour, sugar, eggs and milk to fry for millennia. 

“It’s not only one of the best loved examples of mass food,” he writes, “but also one of the more symbolic forms, in which the whole (and not the hole) represents more than the sum of its parts.”

One of the earliest references to the hole-y treat is in the Holy Bible. Leviticus 7:12 says “unleavened cakes mingled with oil be given as a peace-offering unto the Lord.”

Like the United States itself, the American donut’s roots come from European predecessors like the French beignets and Italian zeppole.

Historians believe the donut was brought to the U.S. by the Dutch as early as 1620. The Oxford English Dictionary’s first reference of “doughnut” in print was in Washington Irving’s A History of New York (1809).

Washington describes extravagant tables filled with large pies and serving dishes of stone fruit jams.

“But it was always sure to boast an enormous dish of balls of sweetened dough, fried in hog’s fat, and called doughnuts,” writes Irving, noting availability was almost exclusively to Dutch families.

Evidence is scarce but historians believe the earliest commercial donut ship was opened by a woman named Anna Joralemon near Wall Street in 1673.

Before the “cronut” dominated bakeries across the country, the cro-magnon donut was a fried ball of dough that sometimes contained nuts. The hole came into vogue when Captain Hanson Crockett Gregory removed the center of some unbaked cakes with a fork for a more even distribution of heat while frying. (Although legend has it that the hole came in 1847 when Gregory spiked a cake onto the spoke of his ship’s wheel during a storm.)

An alternative history claims that the hole came to be when a member of the Nauset tribe shot an arrow through the window of a log cabin in New England and pierced the center of a dough cake being fried by a Pilgrim woman.

Donuts have gained popularity as luxe items that come in fancy flavors for festive occasions but are unglamorous in early mentions.

For example, literary naughty boys Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn devoured donuts and jelly with glee during a Sunday school picnic, while wanderer Ethan Frome faked an insatiable appetite on a diet of donuts and sweet pickles.

Despite the donut’s longevity in American culture, it did not make its way into popular culture until World War I when American soldiers were sent overseas. Donuts became mass-produced and were served by Salvation Army volunteers to American soldiers serving in France by frying the dough in garbage buckets of lard.

The soldiers had a taste for the greasy delights when they came back from war, creating a new American market in a generation of soldiers and their families. 

In 1920, the “Wonderful Almost Human Automatic Donut Machine” was created by a Russian immigrant named Adolph Levitt. The machine was capable of producing almost 1,000 an hour.

But Americans craved more. About 10 million donuts were consumed during World War II, further whetting the country’s appetite. Dunkin’ Donuts was founded by William Rosenberg in 1950 and had more than 1,000 locations across the U.S. by 1990.

According to Deutsch, one reason for the rise of donuts is they became representative of democratic resiliency: soldiers ate donuts in Europe to survive during the war.

Donuts were seen across America in films like Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night when man-of-the-people Clark Gable shows a spoiled heiress played by Claudette Colbert how to dunk a donut.

An amateur donut-dunker, Clobert tries to dunk her whole donut into her cup. She’s taunted by Gable who asks if she learned the technique in finishing school, suggesting donut-dunking is the etiquette of middle class Americans.

“Dunking’s an art,” he explains. “Don’t let it soak so long. A dip and flip in your mouth. You let it hang there too long and it’ll get soft and fall off. It’s all a matter of timing,” he continues, the metaphor for donut-dunking also alluding to the pursuit of the American dream — risk-taking, too. 

Competition came in the form of other round, bready foods in the 1970s. Croissants, muffins and other breakfast foods became available, which grew the American market for deep-fried foods. 

Culturally, donuts gained gluttonous associations as references to bad cops became popular.

“Doughnuts still remain a mass food, but they are also now junkier than ever before,” wrote Deutsch in 1994.

In the last 25 years, however, donuts have undergone a glow-up through the ascension of foodie culture and social media. 

El Paso has a growing number of places to whet or pique your appetite for donuts:

Weirdoughs

Savage Goods

Humble Donut Co.

The Dapper Donut

Mini Donut Depot

Southern Maid Donuts

Marcy’s Donuts

A new donut shop is coming soon on the Westside called The Glazy Donut Co.

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