Day 524: In Praise Of The Mighty Doughnut

originally published June 7, 2013

The month of June is one often scowled at by office drones such as myself every year. Sure, we dads get a little love on the third Sunday, but there isn’t a single day off throughout the entire month. Where’s the joy? What do I do with that innate vibration in my gut that always wants to celebrate something, yet never gets around to telling my employer that I want to take all the Jewish holidays off, even though I don’t celebrate them?

The answer is simple: National Doughnut Day.

This is not some arbitrary corporate-concocted product of Big Dunkin’, looking for an excuse to move a hefty sum of Marble Frosted Cocoa goodness out the front door in June. This is a real thing stemming from good intentions.

And it gives me an excuse to write about doughnuts, so even if I don’t get the day off, I’m happy.

Leave it to the good people of Chicago to come up with something as fantastic as a day to celebrate the simple doughnut. The tale actually begins back in 1917 when the US wandered onto the stage of the first World War. The Salvation Army, looking to ease the burden for the troops, set up special ‘huts’ that would serve them baked goods, stitch up their torn uniforms and provide them with stationary and stamps to send notes to their families back home. One problem – it wasn’t easy setting up ovens and bringing in supplies to bake fresh treats for the soldiers every day.

Margaret Sheldon and Helen Purviance were the two savvy ladies who came up with the idea of serving doughnuts instead. If those things got a little stale, who cares? They’re still doughnuts. Margaret and Helen were right – the doughnuts were a hit.

In 1938, the Salvation Army came up with the idea for a doughnut-themed fundraiser, as a way to pay tribute to Margaret, Helen, and their fellow do-gooders from the Great War. Also, the fundraiser would serve the dual purpose of feeding the needy, which was a handy thing in ’38.

Chicago’s wing of the Salvation Army (sorry… platoon? Regiment? I keep forgetting they’re an army) still holds a charity fundraiser on National Doughnut Day, which officially falls on the first Friday of June. Needless to say, Krispy Kreme and Dunkin’ Donuts are all over this promotion, with some stores giving away freebies to get people in the door. Canada doesn’t celebrate the occasion, but that’s because every day is Doughnut Day up here. Doughnuts and poutine are our staples – and yet somehow America has the bigger obesity problem.

I should point out that the US Marine Corps has their own National Doughnut Day, which lands on the same day as the Marine Corps birthday, November 10. This comes from a prank of sorts, when a number of Marines were imprisoned at Son Tay prison camp during the Vietnam War. They convinced their captors that November 10 was National Doughnut Day, and tricked them into frying up some sugary dough-rings for the prisoners.

The doughnut, like so many wonderful dessert treats, is thought to have migrated overseas with the early Dutch settlers. They bear a striking resemblance to oliekoek, a Dutch sweetened cake fried in delicious, nutritious(ish) fat. An American named Hanson Gregory took the credit for inventing the space at the heart of a doughnut.

As the story goes, Gregory was working on a lime-trading ship when he was only sixteen years old. Because his superiors obviously didn’t give him enough to do, Gregory found a few hours to contemplate the doughnut. They came in various twisted shapes, but they were greasy and gross, and most of the time they were uncooked in the middle. His solution was to increase the surface area and eliminate the doughy center that the oil’s heat could seldom reach.

For that he earned himself a commemorative plaque and a statue.

Not only did Hanson Gregory earn immortality by perfecting a classic snack, he also did his country proud. The doughnut is now considered an American delicacy, despite its European origins.

Of course there’s more to the mighty doughnut than the ring-shaped delicacy the Krispy Kreme stores will be handing out to hungry customers today. The jelly-filled doughnut is a great alternative if you aren’t too picky about the kemptness of the shirt you’re wearing. The Germans have their Berliners, the Israelis have their custard or jelly-filled sufganiyah, and the Japanese enjoy their anpans, which are filled with red bean paste. Boy the Japanese sure know how to kill a treat.

But I’m writing this article from Canada, and up here there is only one doughnut chain that matters, and that’s the one named for and started by former Toronto Maple Leafs star Tim Horton. And Timmy’s has not only mastered the doughnut, but they have conquered the negative space that defines the snack.

Behold the Timbit. Sure, the concept of the ‘doughnut hole’ has probably been around for longer, but when Timbits first began charming the taste buds of Canadians in 1976, there was no going back. Here’s a fact every Canadian should know (but most probably don’t), the word ‘Timbit’ is not merely a play on the word ‘Tidbit’, nor is it a way of saying it’s a ‘bit’ of a ‘Tim’s’ doughnut. The ‘bit’ is an acronym for ‘Big In Taste’, which was the first half of the product’s initial slogan: “Big In Taste, Small In Size.”

One of my personal favorite varieties of doughnut (and yes, of Timbit) is the cruller.

The name comes from the Dutch (of course) word ‘Kruller’, meaning ‘to curl’. The hole in the middle is used to twist the dough in a… you know what? I don’t even care. I want to think of the cruller as a magical food. You’ll find them in a less inspiring stick form across a lot of the US, but up here in Canada we dig the French style pictured above.

So many doughnuts, only a thousand words to drool with. I’m going to finish with a huge thanks to Dawn Brown, the brilliant chef at Swirls Bakery in Omaha, Nebraska, who dared to look beyond the chocolate, beyond the powdered sugar, and beyond the sprinkles. She wanted to make something shocking, something people would talk about in hushed tones. She slathered it in maple, topped it with bacon, and called it the Elvis.

Now there’s a doughnut worth celebrating.

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