There is heavy controversy about the roots of the doughnut. The idea of fried dough is not limited to one country or culture and it is possible to see variants of the doughnut all over the world. While it is uncertain the exact location, time, and person responsible for making the doughnut, there are a few incidents that stand out in the doughnut’s past.
Records show that as early as the mid 19th century, the Dutch were making olykoeks, or “oil cakes.” These early doughnuts were basically balls of cake that were fried until golden brown in pork fat. The cakes were often filled with fruit, nuts, or other fillings that did not need cooking, so the center of the cake did not cook as quickly as the outside.
When Dutch immigrants started to arrive in the United States, they continued to make their olykoeks, where they continued to evolve into what we call doughnuts today, being inspired by other cultures. The Dutch solution to the gooey, uncooked core of the donut was to stuff it with fillings that did not require frying, but there was another solution for Hansen Gregory, an American ship captain. Gregory punched a hole in the middle of the dough ball in 1847 before frying it. The hole increased the surface area, exposure to the hot oil, and the uncooked core was thus removed.
More colorful interpretations of Gregory’s doughnut hole creation include him impaling a doughnut on the steering wheel of the ship so that he could use both hands to steer, or the possibility of angels bringing the form to him in a dream. He is the man credited with inventing the classic hole-in-the-center shape, but Gregory came up with placing a hole in the middle of his olykoek.
An amusing tale in the 19th century involving New England whaling ships, however is apparently correct. Whaling could be reasonably lucrative in terms of ways to make a living, but it was also very risky. After a whale was harpooned, the crew wanted to do a fast job of stripping the blubber and melting it on the deck of the ship into oil in giant cauldrons, called trypots. To keep them motivated, captains would reward their crew with a large batch of doughnuts fried in hot whale oil for every 1,000 barrels they made, which is said to smell very fishy. The crew gobbled them up no matter what.
Still widely debated is the root of the word “doughnut”. Some say it refers to the nuts put inside the dough ball to avoid the uncooked middle, whereas others claim it refers to the olykoeks’ dough knots, which were another common form.
The first published record of the term “doughnut” is in A History of New York, Washington Irving’s 1809 publication. By the early 1900s, many had shortened the term to “donut.” In the English language, “doughnut” and “donut” are used interchangeably today.
The first doughnut machine did not arrive until 1920, when Adolph Levitt, an enterprising immigrant from Czarist Russia, started selling fried doughnuts at his bakery in New York City. He was pushed by hungry theater audiences to create a gadget that churned the tasty rings out faster, and he did.
The first indication that the doughnut, until then merely a sensation of taste, could become a public spectacle in development was Levitt’s doughnut machine. And so, generations of children like me and adults too have been transfixed behind the glass of doughnut shops by the Willy Wonka-like scene, discovering in the process that the doughnut hole is built in not cut out.
A circle of dough in front of them, shaped like a perfect ring of smoke, and about the diameter of a baseball, fell off into a vat of boiling oil, circulated, turned brown on the other side, and emerged on a moving ramp out of the oil, one by one like ducks in a row. Machines have become more refined. The notion spread. The machines of Adolph Levitt won him a dreamy $25 million a year by 1931, mainly from wholesale sales to bakers around the country.
In the doughnut world, large chains such as Krispy Kreme and Dunkin ‘Donuts have dominated for the last few decades, but as the trend of “boutique foods” continues to expand, doughnuts are not left behind. In major cities across America, specialty shops making homemade doughnuts with exclusive flavors and toppings are emerging. Maple and bacon doughnuts, ice cream doughnut sandwiches, and even hamburgers instead of buns on doughnuts. So get ready for more different doughnut creations in the future.
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