On Friday June 3, as on every first Friday of June for the last 78 years, the United States celebrates its National Doughnut Day, the glorification of one of the most popular and appreciated fried dough foods in North America. In 1934, this sweet snack was pronounced “the hit food of the Century of Progress” thanks largely to the innovative technology involved in its production, a technology that today, as with this popular treat, now forms part of American history and culture.
Every legend has a beginning…
That of the American donut* dates back to the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, at the hands of the Dutch settlers who landed in New Amsterdam (now Manhattan) and brought with them the taste –and the recipe– of olykoeks, cakes fried in oil, which were typical of the Netherlands and widely consumed during Christmas celebrations. One of these Dutch migrants was Elizabeth Gregory, the mother of the captain of a merchant ship. She prepared her olykoeks according to her special recipe, in which in the centre of the original dough –made with milk, butter, flour, sugar and eggs– she placed walnuts or hazelnuts and various spices that she obtained from the cargo that the ship was transporting.
The legendary doughnut hole can be credited to Elizabeth’s son, Captain Hanson Gregory, who devised it in 1847. There are several versions of the story. As the captain himself clarified in an interview with the Boston Post fifty years after his feat, this was his real motivation: he used the top of a round tin pepper box to cut into the doughnut and remove the central part, which he disliked as it was almost raw.
That raw centre was the inevitable consequence of its original shape and of how heat is transferred when deep-frying –by way of conduction–, i.e. from molecule to molecule from the exterior to the interior, so that when the outside was just right, the centre was still half done. By removing the mass in the centre and converting the initial sphere into a toroid, the surface/volume ratio increases markedly, with the result being that the dough is cooked much more evenly.
Doughnuts for the soldiers
Nevertheless, the doughnut might have ended up being just one among the many pastries offered in New York bakeries, had it not been for the thoughtful idea of a young Army doctor, Morgan Pett, who, on his first day at the military base to which he had been assigned during the First World War, showed up with eight dozen doughnuts to brighten the mornings of the wounded soldiers he was going to treat. This initiative was welcomed not only by the soldiers, but also by their superiors, and thus began a fundraising campaign in which the Salvation Army got involved. The idea crossed the Atlantic with the volunteers of this organization of “spiritual support” who lent their help in French territory, and who were soon christened the doughnut dollies, responsible for distributing doughnuts in the trenches so that the boys would feel at home… and a little better fed. The significant caloric contribution provided by the ingredients of sugar and fat, for which modern nutritionists condemn and demonize the treat, provided a welcome addition to meagre wartime rations and mess hall food.
The food of progress and the future
After the war, returning US soldiers brought their fondness for doughnut back home. In 1920, Adolph Levitt invented the first automatic machine for making doughnuts in which the dough rings travelled along a channel overflowing with boiling oil and then, once cooked, ascended a moving ramp before falling into a basket. In the following years, Levitt amassed a considerable fortune selling doughnuts wholesale across the country, as well as his machines, thereby helping to cement their popularity.
Doughnuts were so popular that, during the Chicago World’s Fair of 1934, they were called the “hit food of the Century of Progress” and their automated production process was seen as a vision of the fantastic future to come thanks to modern machines. “At that time it was a logical choice,” explains David A. Taylor, an expert in the history of science in the US, to OpenMind. “In a country mired in the Great Depression, donuts were a grateful snack accessible to anyone, which strengthened their hold on popular culture. They represented the democratization of food.”
The first National Doughnut Day, during which they were distributed and sold for solidarity purposes, was held in 1938, organized by the Salvation Army to honour the volunteers and veterans of the war, but also as an initiative to help the disadvantaged in society. “For many people the celebration meant, and still means, the possibility to enjoy a free donut,” explains Taylor.
The spectacular Krispy doughnut machine
In 1950, Vernon Rudolph invented the Krispy Automatic Ring King Junior Doughnut machine. “Rather we should speak of an evolved version of Levitt’s machine, to which Rudolph had been adding improvements during those years,” says David Taylor. It was a compact machine that handled the whole process: mixing the ingredients, creating the dough, moulding it into the ring shape, deep-frying, cooling and packing the cooked doughnuts into boxes at the rapid and profitable rate of 800 units per hour, and the success of the Krispy Kreme chain was based on it.
What’s more, in a brilliant intuitive move, the machines were placed in the window displays of Krispy Kreme locations, where people, especially children, found themselves stuck to the glass, spellbound by a captivating scene comparable to that of Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory. As Taylor recalls: “Being able to contemplate the working of those machines and seeing that, thanks to them, a delicious product was obtained, made people feel less threatened and more comfortable with the growing presence of technology and industry in their lives.”
It was for this reason that, in 1997, on the 60th anniversary of the opening of Rudolph’s first doughnut stand, the Krispy Automatic Ring King Junior Doughnut machine became part of the exhibition of the National Museum of American History, integrated into the Smithsonian Institution, as one of the great milestones of technology applied to the US food industry. With regard to this, David A. Taylor leaves no doubt: “It represents an important chapter in American culture and in the history of twentieth century industry.”
(*Although in this text the terms doughnut and donut are used interchangeably, the latter has only become popular since the 1950s thanks to the Dunkin’ Donuts coffeehouse chain.)