Friday, June 2, 2023
It’s National Donut Day! Hopefully you made your yearly pilgrimage to Dunkin’ or Krispy Kreme and spent $5 on coffee so you could get your free donut.
Do you know what dessert I can almost always pass up? Donuts.
Don’t get me wrong – I’ll eat a dozen in a pinch. But donuts have never been my on my Favorite Things list and if you asked me what I wanted for dessert I’d probably never say a donut, nor any donut-adjacent food product like a churro.
It really depends, though, because not all donuts – like many things in life – are created equal.
There’s a truck here (because of course there is) called Ellie’s Donuts that makes donuts that are more like round cakes with holes in the middle, and I like those quite a bit. They have pumpkin for fall and strawberry for spring and they make them right there while you’re waiting so you get them fresh and delicious.
The important thing is they ask you what color sprinkles you want, the chocolate or the multicolored. And depending on the time of year they will have rainbow or red and green or brown and yellow or pink and white or even red-white-and-blue. Sometimes you have to pay attention to the details.
There’s another truck, more like an Airstream, that’s called Tiny Little Donuts. They’re basically just… small donuts. They’re ok, but they make it interesting by adding toppings, like different icings and drizzles and crumbled cookies and things.
On the down side, they put your donuts in a pile in a box and pour the toppings over them and then hand you a fork, because that’s the only way you can feasibly get these things in your mouth. Something about eating a donut with a fork just makes it soggy cake.
Do you know why we celebrate National Donut Day? Because in 1938 the Salvation Army deemed it should be so.
During World War I, women volunteered to go to the front lines to support American troops and bring them a few goodies. One of those goodies was donuts – or doughnuts, back in the day.
The doughnuts were often fried in lard, inside the soldiers’ helmets.
Ever since, donuts have been celebrated on the first Friday in June.
The internet wants you to believe that’s where the word “doughboy” comes from but the word was already being used in reference to soldiers back in the mid-1800s.
In any case, the popularity of donuts in America took off after that.
Oh, and those women who volunteered to stand there and fry donuts while bombs exploded and shrapnel flew around them? Donut Lassies. They were called Donut Lassies.
What they should have been called is Bad Ass Bitches. And given their own day, sans donuts.
There’s another donut place here called Five Daughters. They’re all the rage because they make a 100-layer donut out of some kind of croissant-like dough. This sounds like it would be the daddy of all donuts, but I find them boring.
They’re mostly just croissant dough, with a layer of icing on top, and if I wanted a croissant I’d just get a croissant. But it’s their thing, and other people seem to live and die by them.
The rest of their donuts can be hit or miss, depending on the flavor and whether they actually managed to get the filling inside or if it’s just a spurt on one edge.
That’s the worst – donuts that should be filled but only give you one little gob of jelly or cream or chocolate off to the side, and the rest is just a big puff of boring cake. If I wanted boring cake I’d get boring cake.
To be fair, they make a mean plain glazed donut. It’s light, it’s airy, it’s got a perfect sheen of sugar on top, and yes, I could eat those by the dozen, usually for breakfast.
The Washington Post tried to figure out where the most donut diversity is, based on Yelp listings. The results have obvious limitations, but even with some margin for error, it’s pretty clear that the east coast is the United States of Dunkin’.
They only exist in 41 states, and most of the stores are concentrated on the east coast so it makes sense that most of my entire donut experience is with that one chain.
State with most locations? New York, with 1400-plus. That isn’t a lot of donut diversity if you ask me.
Donuts may have been popularized by the war but they were around for quite a long time before then.
Countries across the world have some version of a donut. The French have the infamous beignet, which we’ve already established is one of the main food groups if you’re visiting New Orleans.
Central Africa has a ball of fried dough rolled in cinnamon and spices called a Puff-Puff. They look sort of like a cross between a donut hole and a beignet.
India has a Balushahi that’s made with yogurt and soaked in sugar syrup.
Italians – those geniuses of all things pastry (sorry, French) – have more ways to concoct a donut than anyone else.
You’ve got your bomboloni, a fried ball of dough filled with something like limoncello cream or Nutella or custard. The name is allegedly derived from the word “bomb” because it looks like a grenade, but I think it’s just a bomb of delicious.
Then there’s the zeppola, which other people on the internet would have you believe is similar to a beignet, but those people probably live in Tennessee and have never been to an Italian bakery. Zeppole are more like big, round cream puffs of heaven, with more cream piped on top.
Graffe Napoletane is a thing that looks like a typical donut and is rolled in lots and lots of sugar.
And something called a Fritelle Veneziane has actual pine nuts in the dough. There is surely nothing wrong with this.
Do you know what I found while I was looking up these taste-bud-defying delicacies? A recipe from Giada for Italian donuts.
Prior to today, I liked Giada. I mean, I liked her recipes, and have made a number of them to great success.
But after discovering that her idea of making Italian donuts is to deep fry store-bought pizza dough I am revoking her credentials.
Would you be surprised to learn that donuts got to the United States by way of the Dutch when they settled in New York (or then New Amsterdam)? You shouldn’t be! Those Dutch were an amazing bunch. Their donuts were called olykoeks.
On whaling ships in New England they used to fry donuts in whale fat.
The thing about donuts is that they were never a delicacy. They were the thing that people made when there was nothing left to make. When you were poor, when your country was being torn apart by war, when you were stuck on a whaling ship for months on end, when there was nothing left after the flood or the drought or whatever else happened to make life difficult, you mushed up some flour and fried it.
Donuts that don’t qualify at all: Krispy Kreme.
Talk about people living and dying by donuts, you’d think they held Communion in these stores. I’ve only ever had Krispy Kreme a handful of times, and only at the behest of some religious fanatic beseeching me to come to the light.
Ralph doesn’t like them either, but occasionally we forget and we’ll be driving somewhere and hungry and suddenly there will be a Krispy Kreme and we’ll think hey, that sounds pretty good. And we’ll get some flavors and they’ll all be greasy sugar bombs.
They’re only marginally worse than Dunkin’ donuts. The only Dunkin’ donut I will eat – again, in a pinch, like on a road trip where you’re driving through Strip Mall America and your other options are Taco Bell or Hostess cupcakes from a gas station – is the Boston cream.
Of course, I occasionally like some cream with my Boston, which seems to be hard to come by.
I started out by saying that I’m not a fan of donuts, but call it a zeppola or a beignet and I’m in.
I would be remiss if I did not conclude this by mentioning the best donuts, anywhere, ever.
Apple cider donuts, fresh and piping hot at the apple orchard. More cake-like than airy, and covered in cinnamon sugar, these are the things my childhood dreams were made of.
This past October when Ralph and I visited the northeast, we went apple picking at one of my old haunts. Things have changed since I was a kid, namely, the quaint little donut shack is now a conglomerate of retail and food shops.
The crowds have grown exponentially, too.
But the donuts were still there, being fried by a guy behind a hole in the wall just big enough to shove a bag through it at you.
I really wanted donuts but we stood on line for over an hour and made it barely halfway to the window. We went home with 25 pounds of apples but sadly, no donuts.
I leave you with this final note. As I was thinking about donuts today, I was curious to know how many donuts we actually consume. So I went to my friend Google to find out and typed “how many donuts…” and Google helpfully filled in the blank.
Among its guesses as to what I might want to know, it offered
… are in a Hostess bag (Good question. Someone is clearly counting calories.)
… are in a dozen (Five, probably. You would certainly not have the same amount as, say, a dozen eggs. Totally different things.)
… are in the world (Good. Planning for the apocalypse, I like the initiative.)
And this gem…
… can kill you.
Not sure if that’s death by heart attack or by having a dozen of them dropped on your head from 20,000 feet, but clearly a person has to ask.
Photo: some pretty worthy donuts at a place in Nashville that used to be called The Donut and The Dog, because their menu was donuts and hot dogs. They were actually quite good. Sadly, they did not outlast Covid.