Ah, the ubiquitous donut. The guilty pleasure is, at the same time, the most reviled snack by doctors and professional trainers because of its extreme fat content and beloved by people everywhere because, let’s face it, it tastes so damned good.
Donuts in some form or another have been around forever. Archaeologists have dug up fossilized bits of what look like donuts in prehistoric Native American settlements. But what we now know as the “donut” or “doughnuts” (if you prefer) reportedly came to the New World in Manhattan (then still New Amsterdam) under the Dutch name of olykoeks — “oily cakes.”
But did you know that the first donut with a hole was invented in New England, by a ship’s captain and his mother?
The legend has it that a woman named Elizabeth Gregory used to make those delicious little “fat-bombs” for her son, a ship’s captain named Hanson Gregory of Rockport, Maine.
She would concoct her snacks by deep-frying dough and rolling it in nutmeg, cinnamon, and lemon rind. The term “doughnut” came from her practice of putting hazelnuts or walnuts in the center, where the dough might not cook all the way through.
Some claim that the captain speared one of his mom’s cakes on the ship’s wheel, during a storm, so not to lose it. Yet, the holes in donuts became more prevalent because of a more practical reason: As mentioned, the fried dough would not cook all the way in the center. So, while the outside edges were done perfectly, there would be raw dough in the middle. That is where the grease and excess oil would pool turning the donut into an indigestion bomb waiting to happen — hence the Dutch name.
Gregory was interviewed by the Boston Post in 1916 and gave his take on his place in history.
“I guess it was about ’47, when I was 16, that I was aboard the ship and discovered the hole which was later to revolutionize the doughnut industry… Now in them days we used to cut the doughnuts into diamond shapes, and also into long strips, bent in half, and then twisted.”
“I don’t think we called them doughnuts then — they was just ‘fried cakes’ and ‘twisters.’ Well, sir, they used to fry all right around the edges, but when you had the edges done the insides was all raw dough. And the twisters used to sop up all the grease just where they bent, and they were tough on the digestion.”
“Pretty damned tough, too! Well, I says to myself, ‘Why wouldn’t a space inside solve the difficulty?’ I thought at first I’d take one of the strips and roll it around, then I got an inspiration, a great inspiration. I took the cover off the ship’s tin pepper box, and–I cut into the middle of that doughnut the first hole ever seen by mortal eyes!… No more indigestion — no more greasy sinkers — but just well-done, fried-through doughnuts.”
Donuts didn’t really become mainstream in the United States until World War I. Then American troops (doughboys — not named after the snack) would be served the treat by women volunteers (doughnut dollies) who would provide them with a little taste of home. When the soldiers returned from the “war to end all wars,” they brought back with them a taste for the tasty cakes.
That tradition carried on in World War II, Korea, Vietnam, and beyond. At the 1934 World’s Fair in Chicago, the doughnut was hailed as “the food hit of the Century of Progress.”
Two huge doughnut chains opened in the United States: Krispy Kreme opened in North Carolina in 1937; and in 1950 in Quincy, Massachusetts, Dunkin’ Donuts was born. Dunkin has now more than doubled the number of stores of Krispy Kreme and is located in 37 countries.
The donut has gone mainstream. It is estimated that the world consumes about 10 billion donuts annually.
While the donut remains the fodder of fat people and cop jokes everywhere, Captain Hanson Gregory deserves a tip of the cap for his invention to improve his digestion.
If any donut lover travels through the tiny bucolic town of Millbury, Massachusetts, I would encourage them to stop by Rocco’s Donuts near the Worcester line. Rocco’s is an institution in Central Massachusetts and with good reason. The donuts there are easily two and a half times the size and weight of a regular donut. Splurge and try the Boston Cream or the Cannoli doughnut… they are a treat well worth it…
Your doctor, health care professional, or personal trainer may not be happy, but you only go around once, and especially now, we all need a bit of a treat.