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27 september 2015

It's easy to identify the archetypal doughnut: Homer Simpson's favorite pink with sprinkles. Heather Hunwick's global history of the doughnut in fact begins, appropriately, with Homer Simpson. It's harder to define the margins of the doughnut category, and Hunwick's excellent book deploys substantial efforts of logic and empirical research to arrive at a satisfying classification.

To be a doughnut, a treat must be made of soft dough and deep-fried (10). Additionally, it should just by its name be shaped like a ball or a ring (either like a walnut, I suppose, or like the complement to a bolt). But Hunwick is pretty lenient about that. Braided crullers and bar-shaped longjohns and other non-round shapes (diamonds seem popular) qualify. But fried batter or flaky pastry does not, and anything baked is in a different category altogether.

Like puddings, doughnuts have been condemned for containing empty calories; but like puddings, they have often sustained poor workers and the unemployed during times of relative dearth. They're quick to make and use only the most basic pantry staples. They lent themselves early on to mass production, and continue to fuel round-the-clock carb kiosks worldwide. As a piatto dei poveri without any reservatrol or phytonutrients, the doughnut can be scorned by epicures and foodies alike – though it is pre-eminently a food that hipsters can enjoy ironically.

Doughnuts are ancient and universal. They've probably been around since the dawns of agriculture and pastoralism gave people supplies of meal and cooking fat. Hunwick prints a 3500-year-old Egyptian image of folks frying pads of dough in a pan of oil (27). If that is indeed what they are doing – such identifications aren't precise, you know, they might instead be soaking socks in some primeval prewash cycle – then doughnuts are older than the Vedas or the glories of Mycenae.

Doughnuts followed a circuitous and protracted path from the Nile Valley to the drive-throughs of the suburban United States (and back again, with the globalization of American fast food). Romans made some kind of fried cake, though with ground cheese instead of sprinkles; but it really took the expansion of Arabic culture around the Mediterranean in the middle ages to bring doughnutty goodness to Western Europe. Tradition says that the Dutch brought it to America, but Hunwick thinks that the American doughnut was overdetermined by a suite of influences, including Spanish, French-Creole, African, and English fried-treat traditions.

An early account by a certain New Yorker named Grant Thorburn recalls:

I think it was in 1796 that Mrs Jeroleman set a table in the market to sell hot coffee for three-pence a cup, and dough-nuts for one penny each. Her table was the first of this description that I remember to have seen. (54-56)
I'd love to know what market that was – it might be possible to stand on the Manhattan site of the first American doughnut shop and imagine Mrs. Jeroleman's wares. There ought at least to be a plaque or something.

Doughnuts were mostly home-cooked till about 1920 and have been mostly shop-bought ever since. Hunwick includes lots of recipes. The vintage ones are fairly utilitarian, like a 1917 recipe for "Cheap Doughnuts" from Fanny Farmer. The later ones are elaborate, exotic, or alternative; with a Dunkin' Donuts never more than a few minutes away, nobody's going to fry up a dozen plain before breakfast. Hunwick devotes quite a few pages to the gourmet doughnuts of the 21st century, blueberry-bourbon-basil and raspberry-sriracha inventions (124) of chefs in places like Seattle and Portland, where you can apparently (126) buy a single old-fashioned doughnut for $2.75. That would have gotten you three dozen old-fashioned when I was a kid, albeit without the kale/bacon/gojiberry treatment.

I didn't try any of Hunwick's doughnut recipes, not because I'm leery of sugar or fat, but because I was out of Crisco and am at one of those junctures in life where I can't find the cooking thermometer I probably threw out with the foil pan and the carving fork with the turkey carcass three years ago. Home doughnut frying sounds like an activity that you have to do wrong about six times before you get pretty good at it, at which point you're sick of the whole mess and don't do it again for ages, whereupon you have to reboot by doing it wrong again.

I don't believe I've ever had a homemade doughnut. In 1960s Chicago there was no point: heartbreakingly delicious doughnuts arrived almost by themselves every Saturday morning. I was particularly fond of something we called a bismarck, a round item stuffed with red jam and dusted with fine granulated sugar. By the 1980s such bakeries had disappeared and one depended on the chains. I moved to Texas and discovered Southern Maid, especially their maple-frosted doughnuts and bars. Texas isn't really doughnut heaven, though. Supermarket doughnuts here are probably just as good as anything else.

Hunwick notes that Dunkin' Donuts earns most of its profits from coffee, which makes sense. Krispy Kreme is the opposite. I don't patronize either. The great appeal of Dunkin' Donuts used to be that they'd make coffee from freshly-ground beans, even back in the days when a newly-opened can was the freshest coffee Americans could get. I can grind beans at home now and a trip to Dunkin' is superfluous. Krispy Kreme is a taste I have not acquired. Their doughnuts are basically molten sugar and become inedible a few minutes after they're cooked, so the way to get them is to pull through the window and then stuff them into your face on the way out the drive. This not only creates traffic jams but leaves your hands stuck to the steering wheel.

The last thing my mother ever ate, though, was a Dunkin' Donut. One of their signature items, the ones with the handles that facilitate dunking. She was in the last stages of liver failure and couldn't digest anything; she'd been on crushed ice for days. But then she rallied and wanted a Dunkin' Donut, and ate a few bites, and pretty soon died. One has to stay true to one's roots all the way to the end.

Hunwick, Heather Delancey. Doughnut: A global history. London: Reaktion, 2015.