The first doughnut I can remember as a child didn’t even have a hole in it, since it was in the form of a Cruller with a sugar-laced twist from Krug’s New Jersey bakery. This would have been about the same time that I watched in awe while visiting with relatives who dropped half-dollar size pockets of apple-filled dough into a bubbling bath of hot fat only to watch them blossom into softball size fritters that were sheer magic to my eyes and tummy. With a father who roasted huge batches of coffee beans for the Hills Bros. Coffee Company, I became a witness to the first act of “dunking” at an early age, and I was proud to sit next to him as I learned to practice the same artistry with Mom’s home-made-from-scratch hot milk cocoa. I soon figured out that the best “donuts” (*) for dunking were the solid cake-type that didn’t fall apart at just the wrong time. Right from the start I placed the yeast-blossomed raised variety in second or third place (third that is behind the jelly-filled wonders delivered door-to-door by the Duggan’s truck.)
(*) Exactly when Americans invented “Donut” as opposed to the internationally-established doughnut nomenclature isn’t clear; probably between WW I and WW II. It was during The Great War in 1917 and 1918 that the Salvation Army decided to take on the mission of serving freshly-made donuts to American troops, followed in this effort by the Red Cross. (By the way the story that our troops got their name “doughboy” from this connection is a myth; they were known by that appellation already.)
Most of the Pilgrims who landed at Plymouth Rock in 1620 were coming from Holland where they had certainly picked up many recipes from the local folks with whom they had lived, including the fried and baked dough-based desserts for which the Dutch people were famous. And no one visiting New Orleans can fail to credit the French for their world-class version of THEIR donut: the incomparable Begnet!
In fact almost every country has its version of a fried dough dessert, from the Paczki in Poland to the Spanish Sopaipillas and Italy’s Zeppole. And no one knows how far back in Native American history that centerpiece of daily fare we call Navajo Fry Bread has been around. I think the best I ever tasted in years of loving research was in the Reservation village of Chinle near Canyon De Chelly in the Navajo Nation.
Then, there is the ultimate donut – known but to a handful of lucky New Englanders and fellow travelers – kept alive by a few devoted roadside 50s-style diners and side-street bakeries in Vermont, where many of us believe it was originally introduced by an angel from on high more than a century ago. Each one the weight of a half-dozen air-filled “raised” cousins, dense with cinnamon, nutmeg and mace and a crusty exterior which recalls a day when freshly-rendered lard was king, it is universally revered by adherents as “the Vermont Sinker”! I was lucky enough to live near the town of Randolph where the venerable Jarvis family bakery turned out daily trays of their secret recipe to generations of “dunkers” who remember smelling the latest spicy batch when still two blocks away. Alas – since the last of the Jarvis family bakers passed away some years ago, and with him that magical recipe - I am forced to fall back on a certain Molasses-flavored substitute I find only in Maine.
Thinking on the whole subject on our 77th National Donut Day this June, I can taste that sugary cruller which first sweetened my days a lifetime ago.
A Vermont “Sinker” donut – minus the “patented” fragrance. Each year Americans consume some 10 billion donuts of all kinds.