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Doughnuts became prevalent following two major developments in the early 20th century. During World War I, volunteer women served up millions of doughnuts to troops, nicknamed doughboys, fighting in the trenches. The fried cakes served as comforting reminders of home for the troops, who came back to the states with a new taste for doughnuts. (Though a Smithsonian magazine article clarifies that "doughboy" derived from a Civil War nickname for foot soldiers, and is unrelated to doughnuts.)
The other development is less romantic, but perhaps a more practical explanation of why doughnuts became so popular. In 1920, Russian-born New Yorker Adolph Levitt invented the first successful automatic doughnut machine, which pressed and fried the dough. Smithsonian says selling the machines to bakeries earned Levitt $25 million a year by the early 1930s.
Watching automatic doughnut machines in operation was part of the draw: A 1931 New Yorker article rhapsodizes about watching Levitt's machine, seeing "doughnuts float dreamily through a grease canal in a glass enclosed machine, walk dreamily up a moving ramp, and tumble dreamily into an outgoing basket."
Thanks to the rise of automatic machines and the abundance of flour, oil and sugar—courtesy of advancements in agriculture and U.S. crop subsidies—several small doughnut-and-coffee chains, nicknamed "sinker and suds" joints, sprang up starting in the 1930s. Two would become the biggest chains of today: Krispy Kreme and Dunkin' Donuts.
As chains spread, so did pop culture references. In the 1934 film It Happened One Night, Clark Gable's character instructs Claudette Colbert's heiress how to dunk a doughnut. Today, our most famous doughnut eater is the illustrated Homer Simpson; his Wikipedia picture shows him holding a partly eaten pink doughnut.
The references are not always so cute, however. One theory as to how the stereotype of lazy, doughnut-scarfing police officers came about is that, before fast food restaurants and 24-hour gas stations, street stands and doughnut shops were the most accessible cheap food for cops walking around on late-night patrol. Doughnuts now offer a way to jab at authority, like the "Bad Cop, No Donut" stickers that appeared after the Rodney King riots in 1992.
But sometimes people have fun with the stereotype: The Boston-area company Doughboy Police and Fire Supply started out as a doughnut shop that offered police supplies on the side. It eventually dropped the doughnuts and now strictly deals in safety items and riot gear.
From Ichabod Crane to Homer Simpson, American doughnuts have come a long way since their beginnings as craggy fried dough balls in 18th century Manhattan shops. We still think of doughnuts as special, but they're also commonplace. In many ways, doughnuts are an everyday expression of pure American abundance.
A few years ago, cupcakes were all the culinary rage. Blogs and magazines devoted features to the art of the cupcake and their often jaw-dropping variations. Boutique cupcake chains sprouted up in hip neighborhoods in bigger cities. But the cupcake has since fallen: Slate predicted the end of "The Cupcake Bubble" in a 2009 article.
If inanimate sweets were in a competition for American popularity, doughnuts would be winning. While cupcakes have a physical advantage against doughnuts—they're sturdier, thus perfect for lavish decoration—and are significantly easier to bake in a home kitchen, doughnuts offer a striking cultural advantage: they're gender-neutral.
Cupcakes are perceived as being girly. No matter how many Butch Bakeries or Father's Day-themed sports cupcake recipes there are, no small-town Montana biker is going to walk into a cupcake shop. That small-town Montana biker would, however, feel no threat to his masculinity by pulling up his Harley to a doughnut shop and ordering a maple bar.
Make no mistake: Cupcakes aren't going anywhere. But it's doughnuts commanding attention now, partly thanks to a rise in hipster-friendly novelty shops.
Take Portland's popular Voodoo Donuts. The regional chain—there are two stores in Portland and one in Eugene—is known for its creativity, irreverence and attitude. For example, the menu features a $6 cream-filled "cock and balls" doughnut, and the 24-hour shop is a destination for the downtown Portland bar crowd, as well as daytime tourists.
Voodoo Donuts isn't alone. On the opposite coast, New York's Doughnut Plant is known for its artisanal selections, such as a square doughnut filled with peanut butter and blackberry jam and a matcha-green-tea-glazed cake doughnut.
At Treasure State, Lubrecht isn't yet quite so daring, but she is working on the recipe for an orange-and-pistachio cake doughnut. It tastes like a doughnut, but also provides a combination of flavors not usually associated with fried dough.
It's no wonder that exotic doughnuts have proved profitable. Novelty versions of classic goods tend to satisfy two desires: for the familiar, and for the new. We can be assured that an unusual doughnut will taste a little different, but it's still wrapped up in the same comforting, doughy package.
While novelties are memorable, the most common American doughnuts are mass-produced in a supermarket or chain store. Big chains use premixed flour and yeast brew that are combined in a mixer, proofed and then pushed through an extruder, which cuts out the shapes and drops them onto a conveyor belt that sends them into the fryer.
At Treasure State, Lubrecht scoffs at the chains that use frozen dough. It's even worse if chains use pre-fried frozen doughnuts and reheat them in the destination store's oven. While doughnuts' ubiquity is undoubtedly because they're easier to mass-produce by machine than other kinds of pastries or baked goods, some still insist that they're better the old-fashioned, handmade way.
That's the philosophy at Missoula's Rosauers supermarket, where baker Jennifer Seitz puts in the effort to churn out doughnuts from scratch. At 9:30 on a recent weekday morning, Seitz is just coming back from her lunch break. She wears a smudged white apron and tucks her short straight bob behind her ears. She explains her routine simply.
"I get here at 3:30," she says. "We start the doughnut dough first."
Seitz and two other employees cut the doughnut dough, run it through a roller machine to press the rings to a uniform height, and set it in the proofer. Once the yeast doughnuts are proofed, or the cake batter is mixed, another employee works the fryer.