For years I’ve hated cake doughnuts—some people call them old-fashioneds—without really knowing why. My dislike has the unwavering focus of a childhood distaste, all out of proportion with the obvious facts of their sharp aftertaste and dry, stiff crumb. This antipathy to otherwise innocuous pastries is even more disturbing because I pride myself on being a relaxed and fair-minded eater. But even seeing a cake doughnut in a bakery window sends a shiver down my spine, the food equivalent of nails on a chalkboard. I want a drink of water just thinking about it.
As intense as this loathing is, I only recently remembered the root of it. My mother confirmed it, too: Starting when I was maybe 10 or 11, we ate cake doughnuts every Saturday for two years. It wasn’t the taste that put me off. It was what the doughnuts did to my dad.
The doughnuts were one of his get-rich-quick schemes that he picked up to supplement his recession-level income. His other home-business venture—Amway and Watkins were two of his favorites—depended on heavily on charisma and gullible buyers, none of which he had in steady supply.
A doughnut business, on the other hand, required only a few gallons of hot oil and the stubbornness of a much-whipped mule. It was right up my dad’s alley. And considering that he was an electrical engineer, his idea was a pretty good one: Fry ‘em up fresh and ferry them around to folks looking for a bit of a treat on Saturday mornings.
He never had a name for his business that I recall, or a particularly aggressive marketing plan. He just talked about doughnuts a lot. They call it “word of mouth” now, and he was a master of it. Not that he got a lot of customers-at the peak of his doughnut-making career, Dad wasn’t doing more than 20 or 25 deliveries a week. But he would talk about them at any gathering, embarrassing us kids with his blunt enthusiasm and willingness to bring them up regardless of the context. “Oh, yeah,” he’d say loudly in the foyer of our church or at a parent-teacher meeting, “My doughnuts are real good.”
Funny thing was, I don’t remember him ever actually eating his own creations. Maybe he broke open a sample from the first batch of the morning, to make sure that it was properly cooked. Somehow that was enough to lend his declarations the true ring of authority.
Of course, anyone in food service will tell you it’s a hell of a lot of work, and I don’t think Dad figured on how much. He never got used to it, either. Every Friday night he lugged the equipment and heavy sacks of mix out from the laundry room, and every Saturday at 3 or 4 a.m. he fired up the fryer. We got used to the sounds of the enormous mixer, its clanging blades muted by a churning pale mess of dough, but the smell of the frying was unavoidable: thick, oily, and verging too close to burnt. By 8 a.m. the fumes had settled in every curtain in the house, there to linger until the following week.
At the beginning, Dad burned himself fairly often as he dropped the doughnuts in and fished them out, four or six at a time. After they cooled, he painted a thick coat of chocolate or vanilla frosting over the top, which settled in drops all over the table, no matter how carefully he laid down the paper towels.
There was no room in the kitchen to make a real breakfast, so we kids fed ourselves on the more obvious mistakes—the gnarled ones or the ones that stuck together. Then we washed our greasy hands and struggled to put together the pink cardboard boxes, which my father filled according to last week’s orders: one dozen plain, six each of plain and chocolate. He scrawled the name on each box, stacked them carefully in the bus, and yelled at us to hurry up. We could help deliver to houses of people we knew well, but that didn’t mean we could be late.
At first it was exciting to ring the doorbells, carefully present the plain pink boxes, and run back to the car clutching a few dollars. But in time I began to feel a certain resentment toward my dad’s customers, the ones from church especially. The fathers of those households had real jobs, one job each. They could get doughnuts from Dunkin’ Donuts if they wanted to, and fancy ones, too, maple bars and apple fritters and jelly doughnuts. Why were they buying ours, our weird little crumbly cakes with the thick clots of artificial fudge frosting?
I can’t explain, then or now, the source of my distrust, except in the simplest of metaphors—cake doughnuts, apple fritters. What’s to explain? All I know is that even now I can recall the slight disdain in the smiles of my Sunday School classmates as they handed over the money, $1.50 per box. Their fathers were sleeping in bed. My father was sleeping in the car, his head lolling back, his mouth slightly open, and a trace of white dusting his brow.