The hole truth about doughnuts

We consume 10 billion doughnuts a year in the U.S.
six doughnuts on a plate
Photo courtesy of Crave Coffee & Donuts

To quote Homer Simpson, “Mmm … doughnuts!” Round and plump, high in fat and carbs, they are addictive. No one disputes their deliciousness, but whether to spell it “doughnut” or “donut” is a point of contention. The word doughnut came first — mentioned by Washington Irving in his 1809 “A History of New York.” The shorter and phonetically spelled “donut” appeared from time to time as early as the late 1800s, but it’s now widely used and preferred by brands like Dunkin’, Entenmann’s, Hostess and Little Debbie. Regardless of spelling, we’ve come to embrace this simple pastry as an American favorite.

Fried breads have been around forever. Archeologists have unearthed their fossilized remains at prehistoric Native American settlements. Dutch colonists brought to New York their olykoeks — small balls of sweetened dough fried in lard — that many consider the direct ancestor of the modern doughnut. There are several claims as to how the doughnut got its hole, but, in fact, it prevents a soggy center.

Doughnuts came into their own during the 20th century. They went to the trenches during World War I, providing Americans a sweet reminder of home. In 1920, Russian immigrant Adolph Levitt invented a machine that enabled manufacturing on a large scale. Doughnuts that cost less than a nickel became a hit at the Chicago’s World’s Fair of 1934. During World War II, Red Cross volunteers who dispensed the popular snack were dubbed Doughnut Dollies.

Post-war America witnessed a rise of doughnut chains. Krispy Kreme’s humble beginning dates back to 1937 in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. By the 1950s, it had 29 locations in 12 states. Started as Open Kettle in 1948 in Quincy, Massachusetts, and rebranded as Dunkin’ Donuts in 1950, Dunkin’  boasted more than 100 shops after just 10 years. In 1955, Harry Winokur — Dunkin’ founder William Rosenberg’s brother-in-law — opened the first Mister Donut.

Today, Americans consume about 10 billion doughnuts a year. Doughnuts fall into two categories: cake, leavened with baking powder and soda; and raised, leavened with yeast.

In 1998, Barb and Marv Miller’s Greenbush Bakery became the only certified kashrut dairy kitchen in town. Greenbush’s old-fashioned sour cream doughnuts have become a quintessential Madison treat. Scandinavian specialties aside, Fosdal Home Bakery in Stoughton is famous for its doughnuts. Unrivaled is the raised and glazed chocolate variety. COVID-19 didn’t stop Cynthia and Jesse Smith from opening Crave Coffee & Donuts in May. The shop’s process for making a brioche-based dough takes two days. Flavors include strawberry crumble, Almond Joy and Nutella.

Retired, there is little I miss about work … except for the doughnuts … which I could enjoy without guilt since I didn’t buy them.

Dan Curd has written for Madison Magazine for more than 20 years.