Montana Public Radio

Who Put The Hole In The Doughnut?

Feb 2, 2020

"They say that man cannot live by doughnuts alone, but I say: why not?"  - "Food Guy" Jon Jackson.

This week, The Food Guys sprinkle out bits of doughnut history and glaze them with doughnut-baking tips. It turns out that American-style doughnuts are actually Dutch, and they didn't always have a hole in the middle.

From The History of the Doughnut: A look back at the men, women and machines that made America’s favorite treat possible, by David A. Tyler, Smithsonian, March 1998: 

"Of course doughnuts in some form or other have been around so long that archaeologists keep turning up fossilized bits of what look like doughnuts in the middens of prehistoric Native American settlements. But the doughnut proper (if that's the right word) supposedly came to Manhattan (then still New Amsterdam) under the unappetizing Dutch name of olykoeks--"oily cakes."

Fast-forward to the mid-19th century and Elizabeth Gregory, a New England ship captain's mother who made a wicked deep-fried dough that cleverly used her son's spice cargo of nutmeg and cinnamon, along with lemon rind. Some say she made it so son Hanson and his crew could store a pastry on long voyages, one that might help ward off scurvy and colds. In any case, Mrs. Gregory put hazelnuts or walnuts in the center, where the dough might not cook through, and in a literal-minded way called them doughnuts.

Her son always claimed credit for something less than that: putting the hole in the doughnut. Some cynical doughnut historians maintain that Captain Gregory did it to stint on ingredients, others that he thought the hole might make the whole easier to digest. Still others say that he gave the doughnut its shape when, needing to keep both hands on the wheel in a storm, he skewered one of his mom's doughnuts on a spoke of his ship's wheel. In an interview with the Boston Post at the turn of the century, Captain Gregory tried to quell such rumors with his recollection of the moment 50 years before: using the top of a round tin pepper box, he said, he cut into the middle of a doughnut "the first doughnut hole ever seen by mortal eyes."

... The first doughnut machine did not come along until 1920, in New York City, when Adolph Levitt, an enterprising refugee from czarist Russia, began selling fried doughnuts from his bakery. Hungry theater crowds pushed him to make a gadget that churned out the tasty rings faster, and he did.

... By the 1934 World's Fair in Chicago, doughnuts were poster material, billed as "the food hit of the Century of Progress." Seeing them produced "automatically" somehow made them part of the wave of the future. A doughnut cost less than a nickel, within reach of most of the Depression's victims. They were base and beloved. In the 1934 film It Happened One Night, rugged newspaperman Clark Gable actually has to teach runaway heiress Claudette Colbert how to dunk. Often, doughnuts were sold with their own can-do philosophy. Singer Cindy Hutchins' mother recalls buying them after seeing movies at Washington, D.C.'s Capitol Theater. They came with a slip of paper to bolster the downtrodden: "As you go through life make this your goal: Watch the doughnut, not the hole.""

(Broadcast: "The Food Guys," 2/2/20. Listen weekly on the radio at 9:53 a.m. Sundays, or via podcast.)