Since 1938, Americans have celebrated National Doughnut Day in recognition the Salvation Army’s “Doughnut Lassies” from World War I. These women earned their title by delivering the sweet, torus-shaped bits of fried dough to American soldiers in the trenches of France to help fend off feelings of homesickness. While it may seem appropriate that such a calorie-rich treat was considered an American invention, it shouldn’t be a surprise that the true origins of the doughnut can actually be traced to various cultures around the world. But if Americans didn’t exactly invent the basic recipe for fried dough, we probably do deserve credit for the efficient, convenient and entertaining aspects of their industrialized production.
Fried dough tastes fantastic
Figuring out the origins of the first doughnut recipe is probably an impossible task. There are many examples of foods from as far back as Ancient Greece that essentially consisted of frying dough in oil, then adding sugar or other sweeteners to make it taste amazing. We’ll probably never know who first had the bright idea to fry up their scraps of dough, but we know that it was enjoyed across Europe to the Middle East. Out of all those variations, we can say that the Dutch dish oliekoecken, or oily cakes, became the eventual inspiration for the modern doughnut. This recipe was originated in Europe, but was also popular in immigrant communities of what was then New Amsterdam in North America.
These proto-doughnuts looked a bit like a modern jelly-filled doughnut, at least from the outside. They often included some kind of flavorful item in the center, such as fruit or even nuts (which may be a possible explanation for the name “doughnut.”) Those fillings weren’t just added for flavor though- they also helped the cake cook more evenly, since dough in the center of a cake would often be left cold while the outside was fried. Fortunately for everyone, this conundrum would eventually lead to the first major innovation in doughnuts- the addition (or removal?) of the hole.
Slicing out the center
There are a lot of details surrounding the transformation of oily cakes into a torus-shaped doughnut, and there’s a good chance many are apocryphal. They all surround a one Captain Hanson Gregory of New England, who is given credit for the invention of the modern doughnut in the mid-19th century. Gregory’s mother was said to make her son Dutch oily cakes for his journeys with a recipe involving nutmeg, lemon peel and nuts in the center. At some point, Gregory opted to cut the centers out of the cakes though, either to skimp on nuts, impale the snack on his ship’s steering wheel to free up his hands, or most likely, to help the cakes cook more evenly. Whatever sparked the idea, Gregory went on the say he’d cut the centers out of cakes with a round tin pepper box, although later iterations of doughnuts are generally formed with the hole from the start, rather than slicing it out.
Sweet snack success
Properly-holed doughnuts proved to be quite popular, and some cafes and bakeries had a hard time meeting demand. This was rectified by the second major iteration in doughnut technology, an automatic doughnut machine built by Adolph Levitt, a Russian immigrant living in New York City. The machine not only churned out 75 dozen donuts per hour, but it was also set up to entertain hungry patrons who would gather to watch the food being produced, not unlike the Krispy Kreme stores of today. These devices were a huge success, earning Levitt a considerable amount of dough (sorry) and establish doughnuts as the “food hit of the Century of Progress.”
Aside from turning up in the trenches of World War I, mass-produced doughnuts were quickly established in popular culture. The image of eating, and perhaps dunking them coffee at a diner, was invoked in movies and songs in the 1930s. Obviously, such a phenomenon couldn’t be contained in New York alone, and it wasn’t long before now-famous brands like Dunkin’ Donuts and Krispy Kreme were established, even if the latter started by being sold out of the trunk of a car.
Today doughnuts make up a significant portion of America’s snacking habits. By 2015, $581 million dollars worth of doughnuts were being sold from convenience stores alone, and that number is expected to grow in the future. Major brands are still growing as well, with companies like Krispy Kreme extending their reach to international markets. It seems that thanks to the appeal of sweet, fried dough, no American will ever need to feel homesick for a sugary snack again.
Source: The History of the Doughnut by David A. Taylor, Smithsonian