The History of the Doughnut

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

(Jacqueline Moen)
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By then, Adolph Levitt's machines were earning him a dreamy $25 million a year, mostly from wholesale deliveries to bakers around the country. A company spokesman breathlessly reported that Levitt's machine had pulled the doughnut "out of the mire of prejudice that surrounded the heavy, grease-soaked product . . . and made it into a light, puffy product of a machine."

He had a point. By the 1934 World's Fair in Chicago, doughnuts were poster material, billed as "the food hit of the Century of Progress." Seeing them produced "automatically" somehow made them part of the wave of the future. A doughnut cost less than a nickel, within reach of most of the Depression's victims. They were base and beloved. In the 1934 film It Happened One Night, rugged newspaperman Clark Gable actually has to teach runaway heiress Claudette Colbert how to dunk. Often, doughnuts were sold with their own can-do philosophy. Singer Cindy Hutchins' mother recalls buying them after seeing movies at Washington, D.C.'s Capitol Theater. They came with a slip of paper to bolster the downtrodden: "As you go through life make this your goal: Watch the doughnut, not the hole."

It was in the 1930s, too, and half a country away from Levitt's busy Harlem bakery, that a Frenchman named Joe LeBeau made his way up from New Orleans to Paducah, Kentucky. Probably the hard times led him to sell his secret recipe (written out longhand on a slip of paper), and the name Krispy Kreme, to a local store owner named Ishmael Armstrong, who hired his nephew, Vernon Rudolph, and put him to work selling the treats door-to-door.

In 1937 young Vernon and two friends found themselves in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, with just $25 between them. They borrowed ingredients (potatoes, sugar and milk) from a kindly grocer, stripped down to survive the heat of baking in July, and emerged with a fresh batch of Krispy Kremes, which they delivered in their 1936 Pontiac. That year, Joe Louis was heavyweight champ, Amelia Earhart disappeared over the Pacific, the Golden Gate Bridge was completed, and a popular song was proclaiming that you can live on doughnuts and coffee if "you're in love."

North Carolinians soon found their way to Rudolph's operation, and because it's hard to stay wholesale when the fragrance keeps issuing retail flyers for every batch, Rudolph, like Levitt before him, boosted local sales by letting the public see, as well as buy. Krispy Kreme still uses this wholesale/retail system, selling to grocery stores and to passersby who watch for the neon "Hot Doughnuts Now" sign to light up, signaling a fresh batch.

War seems to be a powerful stimulant to doughnut consumption. After all, doughnuts enlisted for World War II just as in World War I. Red Cross women, later known as Doughnut Dollies, doled them out. In his 1942 Army musical, Irving Berlin romanticized the doughnut further with a soldier who loses his heart at Broadway's Stage Door Canteen and eats his way through some anxious waiting: "I sat there dunking doughnuts till she caught on." Not surprisingly, Vernon Rudolph returned from military duty with thoughts of expanding his doughnut chain. And it was right about then, in the early 1950s, that the first Ring King started churning away in the back room.

By the late 1950s, in 29 Krispy Kreme store-factories in 12 states, individual Ring Kings like the Smithsonian's model were turning out something like 75 dozen doughnuts an hour. They faced stiff competition. Dunkin' Donuts, started in Quincy, Massachusetts, in 1950, has been flourishing ever since. By the early 1980s, the Ring King Jr. was obsolete; a fond memory for doughnut aficionados, it was replaced by newer and more elaborate equipment. Sadly, for a while there, the doughnut itself seemed to be going into decline, especially in New York where it was being challenged by the more urbane bagel. But my friends and I, doughnut-deprived college students in a small North Carolina town, thought nothing of a 20-mile journey to Charlotte at 1 A.M. for solace: coffee steaming on the counter, the usual night owl clientele, and fresh Krispy Kreme doughnuts.

These days the redoubtable doughnut, made by Krispy Kreme and others, is riding high. Krispy Kreme stores, long best known in the South, are spreading North and West, and sales climbed 20 percent in 1997. Last February, the New Yorker described the Manhattan store as a "shrine" and once more detailed the doughnut-making process. (The new machines make 800 dozen doughnuts an hour--more than ten times as many as the Ring King Jr.--but still use the secret formula and doughnut mixes shipped from Winston-Salem.) Dunkin' Donuts has stores in twice as many states as Krispy Kreme, and in 37 other countries, and sells nearly five times as many doughnuts worldwide. In the United States alone, about 10 billion doughnuts are made every year, a mere 1.1 billion by Krispy Kreme. Small wonder one sees reprints of Robert McCloskey's famous children's book Homer Price, in which a major figure is a doughnut-making machine that runs amok.

Doughnut consumption figures do not encourage nutritionists, who like to point out that the average doughnut can carry a 300-calorie wallop, notable mainly for its sugar and fat. In fact, a recent issue of the New England Journal of Medicine bemoaned the unsaturated fat purveyed by the glazed doughnut. Famous chefs generally deplore the doughnut. But neither science nor culinary scorn nor outright scolding deters devotees, who variously describe Krispy Kreme's hot "original glazed" doughnut with terms like "angelic" or even "sugar-coated air."

David Shayt is one of the collections managers in charge of the Smithsonian's ongoing (and never ending) effort to acquire for the future significant artifacts from American technology and culture, so that the future will have a permanent record. For him and his colleagues, the old Ring King Jr., though it is now retired to storage, is as significant as a Colonial cast-iron cooking pot also in the Smithsonian collection, only more complex. Shayt is pleased that the Institution also has in storage four empty paper sacks each labeled with the proper ingredients for Krispy Kreme doughnuts. "In 800 years, if America should lose the art of making doughnuts," he says, "we could help reconstruct how to do it." Maybe so. But to date nobody but Krispy Kreme has Joe LeBeau's secret recipe. That stays locked up in a safe in Winston-Salem.

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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