The offerings at Firecakes
  • Firecakes Donuts
  • The offerings at Firecakes

Today, the first Friday in June, would probably be one of our most celebrated national holidays if anybody knew about it: it’s National Doughnut Day. Remember that. Program it into your calendar for next year. And then solemnly observe by eating the best doughnut you can find. If you need a holy text, pick up food historian Michael Krondl’s new book, The Donut: History Recipes and Lore from Boston to Berlin.

Krondl scored the best book assignment ever: he got to travel around the world sampling the fried doughs of various cultures, and then across our own glorious nation, where the doughnut was perfected. Then he spent several weeks in his kitchen testing and sampling doughnut recipes. “I’ve been swimming in fat, so to speak,” he says, “both saturated and unsaturated. I gained ten pounds. I weighed more than I’ve ever weighed. It’s one of those occupational hazards.”

Such bravery and self sacrifice!

The history of the doughnut, Krondl found, sort of mirrors our own. “It’s the sweet snack of the United States,” says Krondl. “We talk about Mom and apple pie, but Americans don’t eat that much apple pie. And the cupcake . . . there’s not much to say. Whereas doughnuts have been here since Day One. The English, the Germans, the French, everyone brought their fried dough with them. Like all immigrants, it became generally American. It’s loaded down with cultural stories.”

How doughnuts reached the front during World War I
  • How doughnuts reached the front during World War I

During the 19th century, the doughnut was a homely food, prepared and fried in Americans’ very own kitchens. (Krondl doesn’t mention it, but the Wilder family’s doughnut jar in Farmer Boy is one of my very favorite details in the entire Laura Ingalls Wilder canon.) But during World War I, the doughnut, like its homeland, rose to global prominence when the Salvation Army began mass-producing and serving doughnuts to the doughboys in Europe. In 1918, the Germans actually laid siege to a doughnut truck for several days before, Krondl writes, “the kaiser’s artillery blew the truck to smithereens, sending a rain of crumbs across the western front.”

Throughout the 20th century, the production of the doughnut became ever more mechanized, reaching its apotheosis in Dunkin’ Donuts, where the doughnuts are not actually made on-site, but rather shipped in from a bakery. “And now, in the 21st century,” he continues, “there’s more attention to artisanal, homemade food, this nerdy culinary culture.”

Plus, unlike pie (even the hand pie), a doughnut is a food a single person can eat alone, on the go. What is more American than that?

If there’s anything Krondl considers a cardinal doughnut sin, it’s expecting people to eat doughnuts that are not freshly-fried. “Day-old gourmet doughnuts are not worth eating,” he proclaims. Then he considers for a moment. “Well, it depends on how desperate you are.”

Let it be known that Krondl once ate about 15 freshly made miniature doughnuts to figure out whether he liked then because they were good or just because they were fresh. He let a half dozen more sit out overnight and then tasted again before he could definitely conclude that the doughnuts were not that good, but that freshness concealed a multitude of sins.

In the course of his research, Krondl tasted a wide variety of exotic doughnuts, though not Voodoo Donut’s Pepto-Bismol doughnut. (There is a law against putting medicine in food, but Krondl believes it would have run its course anyway: “There’s only so much weirdness people will put up with.”) He also did not try the original cronut, since he believes forcing people to wait in long lines for a limited selection of baked goods is “fundamentally sadistic.” (Hello, Doughnut Vault!) He tried a vegan doughnut made with mushroom extract that tasted fruity, and a pork belly-filled, coconut-topped doughnut sandwich that tasted like southeast Asia (sweet and savory and fat), but his favorite was the creme brulee doughnut at Cartems Donuterie in Vancouver, which, he says, managed to have a burned sugar glaze not only on all outside surfaces, but inside as well.

That is the cutting edge of doughnut technology, friends. But Krondl predicts that strides will be made in the arena of gluten-free doughnuts. “They used to make doughnuts out of rye flour in New England,” he says. “It’s a little heavier, like French or Polish rye bread. There may be a world of non-wheat-based doughnuts to be explored.”

If you’re going to attempt to make doughnuts at home, Krondl recommends you start with his apple cider doughnut, or maybe a basic cake doughnut, since some bakers find yeast intimidating, and to fry the doughnuts in solid fat, either lard or Crisco, because it’s less greasy than vegetable oil. Also, the doughnuts hold up better. Though he’s included in his book a recipe for baked doughnuts, he considers them an aberration. “It’s like low-fat bacon,” he says. “Why?

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But no matter the form it takes, the doughnut is fundamentally about happiness. For the book, Krondl interviewed Al Jean, an executive producer on The Simpsons, who points out that “doughnut” is just a fundamentally funny word. “Just look at the words: ‘dough’ and ‘nut.’ They’re both hilarious!” In his research, Krondl discovered that doughnuts were a source of humor even before Homer Simpson devoured his first pink-glazed.

“There’s something happy about the circle,” he muses. “It’s like a happy face.”

Krondl himself is spending National Doughnut Day doing more interviews about the book, but he urges everyone to celebrate by getting a good dozen doughnuts from a respectable artisan doughnut place. “Spend the few extra bucks,” he urges. “With the proviso that they’re fresh.”

Aimee Levitt writes about books on Fridays.