A Brief History of Donuts

A Brief History of Donuts

by Niki Konkoly

Although many nations have their own versions of fried dough balls, the sweet, satisfying, ring-shaped American icon has a coming of age story interwoven with fables of lucky accidents and international contribution galore. Read on for some exciting details.

Image via Ritch Bitch Cookin

Homers and Puff Balls

Fossils with an uncanny resemblance to donuts have been found on prehistoric Northern American settlement sites, but – as almost everything – these dough-balls can also be traced back to ancient Roman times, when they dipped the balls into syrup or fish oil. The ancient Greeks also had their own fried puff balls they rolled in honey and walnuts, meaning that Homer the philosopher could’ve enjoyed them just as much as Homer Simpson does.

The iconic American doughnut’s modern day debut, however, is usually attributed to the Dutch, who brought their treasured olykoeks – ‘oil(y) cakes’ – along with them to New York (then New Amsterdam). The word doughnut first appeared in a recipe collection in 1803.

A Series of Lucky Accidents

Hanson Gregory, a ship captain, and his mother Elizabeth would also land the leading roles in a movie made about doughnuts. Elizabeth supplied the ship with the deep-fried goodies, and is considered to be the revolutionary lady who put the nut in the dough: worried that the center of the dough wouldn’t cook, she put a hazelnut or walnut in the middle. Rumor has it that her son upped the treat one more notch when, needing both of his hands to steer, he pierced one by sticking it on a spoke of the wheel. According to him, however, he consciously cut them out with a cake tin (which could have been his way to cut costs). It is very likely, however, that bakers around the world discovered – independently of the self-proclaimed hole-explorer – that the doughnut just bakes more evenly if the middle part is removed.

Image via I Like History

Other, European legends include Marie Antoinette popularizing the fried mini cakes in the Versailles court after accidentally stumbling upon them at a street vendor, hungry after dancing her stockings off at a masquerade ball. According to another popular myth, the nation’s favorite treat was born out of nuptial tension. It is said that a baker’s wife, infuriated with her husband, wanted to throw a ball of dough at him, but she missed the target. And by dropping it into a vat of hot oil, discovered the oily delight that is a doughnut.

A National Treasure

Another milestone in the process of the donut becoming a quintessential icon of America and its optimism was the First World War, when women in the Salvation Army started making and distributing donuts to soldiers, taking them as far as the front lines, in an effort to help soothe their homesickness with familiar flavors. This tradition carried on during World War II and the Vietnam War, earning these resilient volunteers the nickname Doughnut Lassies, then Donut Dollies.

Image via Vintage Everyday

For easily accessible donuts, we can thank Adolph Lewitt, a Russian refugee, who invented the first donut machine in 1920. By 1933, donuts were applauded as the ‘Hit Food of the Century of Progress’ at the Chicago World Fair. It wasn’t long until the automated machines allowed for chains such as Krispy Kreme and Dunkin’ Donuts, the latter having largely contributed to the word’s alternate spelling as well.

The signature pink boxes – inducing a drooling Pavlovian reflex in nearly everyone from LA – are also said to have come around accidentally. The owners of a small donut shop wanted to use red boxes as it is the color of fortune for the Chinese, but the supplier had a much cheaper leftover stock of pink cardboard, so they went with these instead.

The often recited stereotype of donut-gobbling cops isn’t an untrue judgment, either. Back in the 1950s, not many eateries were open during the night, so police officers on their late night patrol shifts often ended up warding off hunger with the sugary treat – and their favored donut shops took pride in this.

Yummy Treats with a Conscious Twist

The never-ending evolution of the donut is currently at a stage of creative ventures and various hybrids, such as the cronut (croissant-donut) or duffin (donut-muffin).

Luckily, we can also choose from more animal-friendly and healthier alternatives than those fried in hog’s fat, as an 1809 book described doughnuts. They are just as divine baked in the oven, and made without dairy, eggs, or even gluten. From kale-glazed to galaxy ones, the varieties are endless. Take a look at our compilation [link to compilation article] to see some of the most creative vegan donut recipes.

What’s your favorite type of donut? Are you pro-fry or a bake-believer? Let us know in the comments!

Sources: Smithsonian MagazineVintage Everyday, Atlas Obscura

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