The fried cake has been a staple treat for mankind since prehistory – and shows little sign of slowing down
It’s difficult to deny that the doughnut is having its moment. Like the burrito before it, the round mound of fried dough is undergoing a foodie transformation, a ring-shaped revolution that sees the circles stuffed with increasingly bespoke combinations. There is no hipster cafe in the country worth its salt that hasn’t been offering the discerning consumer some variation salted caramel plastered atop a sugary pillow of airy dough. But the honest truth is that when it comes to deliciousness, a freshly made jam doughnut from your local supermarket can just as easily go head to head with even the most notioned of artisanal offerings – because fundamentally, fried dough tastes good.
Doughnuts have a long history, with archaeologists routinely turning up new fossilised bites left over from centuries long since past, to the point that the earliest recognised fried dough lump harkens all the way to several prehistoric Native American settlements. For the sake of convenience here, let’s settle on the traditional round doughnut as a starting point, which owes its origin to the Dutch.
The olikoek, literally the ‘oily cake’ had been a staple of Dutch and Flemish cultures from the Middle Ages onward, made by dropping a leavened dough sweetened with sultanas, raisins, or, in the cases of the wealthy, candied peel into a bubbling vat of animal fat. Devoured by Germanic tribes celebrating Yuletide, the story went that in order to appease the goat-faced goddess Perchta, who had a fondness for slicing open people’s stomachs, men and women would fill themselves with greasy cakes so that her sword would slide off them instead.
Olikoeks begat oliebol, more refined and ball shaped, which is what Dutch settlers brought with them when they settled New York.
The Dutch painter Aelbert Cuyp's 1652 painting Young woman with a cooking pot filled with oliebollen [Wiki Commons]
A few hundred years later in the 19th century and Elizabeth Gregory, a New England mother worried about the health of her ship captain son and his crew out on the high seas, came up with her own variation. Mixing her son’s spice supplies of cinnamon and nutmeg, along with lemon rind to stave off scurvy, it’s claimed that Gregory stuffed her dough balls with walnuts or hazelnuts in the centre, as a way to make sure all of the raw batter cooked fully through so they could be stored for the entire voyage. Whether or not this is true, being a rather literal etymology for doughnut, at least Elizabeth’s enterprising creation is better regarded that her son, with the good Captain Gregory’s claim to fame being that he was so scabby he invented the ring doughnut, with the express purpose being fewer ingredients used up and a better profit for the producer.
Arguably the biggest boost to the popularity of the doughnut has been American involvement in global conflicts and war. Not long after US soldiers entered the battlefields of France and Belgium, female volunteers to the Salvation Army followed them across the Atlantic. Tasked with boosting the morale of enlisted Americans far from home and facing death, the women founded ‘huts’ from which they could serve baked goods and coffee, and provide other services like clothes mending and letter writing materials.
With fresh ingredients few and far between, two Sally Army gals, Ensign Margaret Sheldon and Adjutant Helen Purviance, thought that doughnuts could be easily prepared. The decision proved to be an instant hit, and before long the so-called Doughnut Dollies were visiting the front with bushels of freshly fried doughnuts. This practice continued during the Second World War, and Red Cross Volunteers also headed to Vietnam when the US entered the fighting there.
A Red Cross 'Doughnut Dolly' serving freshly-made ring doughnuts to the boys at the front during WWII [Pixabay]
After the war, servicemen brought back their love of doughnuts to the US, opening their own stores across the United States, right around the time when a Russian immigrant named Adolph Levitt assembled the first doughnut machine. To quote the July 18th, 1931 edition of The New Yorker, “Doughnuts float dreamily through a grease canal in a glass-enclosed machine, walk dreamily up a moving ramp, and tumble dreamily into an outgoing basket.” With 1,200 units produced by the machine every hour, Levitt’s business was earning him $25m a year, a Depression-proof business. His business partner, rather aptly named Mr Sugarman, described the automation of production as having “taken the doughnut out of the mire of prejudice that surrounds the heavy, grease-soaked product [...] and made it into a light, puffy product of a machine.”
A century later and the doughnut is once again the toast of confectionery fans, though today handmade takes probably takes preference. With everything from bacon sprinkles to peanut butter and jelly, if you can imagine it, it’s probably available somewhere.