The History of the Doughnut

A look back at the men, women and machines that made America’s favorite treat possible

(Jacqueline Moen)
Smithsonian Magazine | Subscribe

At the National Museum of American History one day last July, an upright piano stood on a stage. Beside it, on a wooden pallet, was a strange metal contraption about five feet high. The Ring King Jr., once America's most advanced automatic doughnut maker, had just been donated to the Smithsonian Institution by the Krispy Kreme Doughnut Corporation. It was Krispy Kreme's 60th birthday.

In my own sixth or maybe seventh year, I remember stopping in at the green, red and white Krispy Kreme place in Alexandria, Virginia. There was a wide glass window behind the counter, and you could look in there at all those shiny conveyor belts and racks filled with fresh glazed doughnuts, and half swoon at the warmth and sweet vanilla richness of it all. At the Smithsonian dedication, the Ring King was saluted as a milestone in American doughnut history. Then a singer, Cindy Hutchins, stepped up to the mike and drawing on the museum's archive of popular sheet music (more than a million songs in all) sang, "Who made the doughnut with the hole in the middle? Just how it got there will be always a riddle."

Well, yes and no. It is true that the humble doughnut does have a convoluted past that involves Dutch immigrants, Russian exiles, French bakers, Irving Berlin, Clark Gable and a certain number of Native Americans. And, yes, in its democratic ethos, its optimism, and its assorted origins, it does seem rather quintessentially American.

Of course doughnuts in some form or other have been around so long that archaeologists keep turning up fossilized bits of what look like doughnuts in the middens of prehistoric Native American settlements. But the doughnut proper (if that's the right word) supposedly came to Manhattan (then still New Amsterdam) under the unappetizing Dutch name of olykoeks--"oily cakes."

Fast-forward to the mid-19th century and Elizabeth Gregory, a New England ship captain's mother who made a wicked deep-fried dough that cleverly used her son's spice cargo of nutmeg and cinnamon, along with lemon rind. Some say she made it so son Hanson and his crew could store a pastry on long voyages, one that might help ward off scurvy and colds. In any case, Mrs. Gregory put hazelnuts or walnuts in the center, where the dough might not cook through, and in a literal-minded way called them doughnuts.

Her son always claimed credit for something less than that: putting the hole in the doughnut. Some cynical doughnut historians maintain that Captain Gregory did it to stint on ingredients, others that he thought the hole might make the whole easier to digest. Still others say that he gave the doughnut its shape when, needing to keep both hands on the wheel in a storm, he skewered one of his mom's doughnuts on a spoke of his ship's wheel. In an interview with the Boston Post at the turn of the century, Captain Gregory tried to quell such rumors with his recollection of the moment 50 years before: using the top of a round tin pepper box, he said, he cut into the middle of a doughnut "the first doughnut hole ever seen by mortal eyes."

One likes to think that less was more. But in fact doughnuts didn't come into their own until World War I, when millions of homesick American doughboys met millions of doughnuts in the trenches of France. They were served up by women volunteers who even brought them to the front lines to give soldiers a tasty touch of home. When the doughboys came back from the war they had a natu-ral yen for more doughnuts. (The name "doughboy," though, didn't derive from doughnuts. It goes back to the relatively doughnutless Civil War, when the cavalry derided foot soldiers as doughboys, perhaps because their globular brass buttons resembled flour dumplings or because soldiers used flour to polish their white belts.)

The first doughnut machine did not come along until 1920, in New York City, when Adolph Levitt, an enterprising refugee from czarist Russia, began selling fried doughnuts from his bakery. Hungry theater crowds pushed him to make a gadget that churned out the tasty rings faster, and he did.

Levitt's doughnut machine was the first sign that the doughnut, till then merely a taste sensation, could, in production, become a public spectacle. And so generations of kids like me, and adults, too, have stood transfixed by the Willy Wonka-like scene behind the glass of doughnut shops, learning in the process that the doughnut hole is built in, not cut out. There before them a circle of dough, shaped like a perfect smoke ring, and about the diameter of a baseball, dropped off into a vat of boiling oil, circulated, got turned over to brown on the other side, and emerged from the oil on a moving ramp, one by one like ducks in a row.

The machines grew more refined. The idea spread. By 1931, the New Yorker was whispering to its readers, "We can tell you a little about the doughnut-making place in Broadway," and described how "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."

About David A. Taylor

David A. Taylor is completing a book about immigrants, industrial espionage and three families caught up in World War II.

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