As an undergraduate student who’s spent nearly four years at the University of Chicago, I’ve slowly become skeptical that anything can be good for its own sake. A storm of qualifications, footnotes, and further edits besiege my class discussions and casual conversations daily. By the start of my senior year it seemed the time for innocent assertions had passed.
This changed somewhat this past fall when I took Professor Anton Ford’s lecture class “Justice,” which focused exclusively on the ethical writings of Plato, Aristotle, and Kant. I immediately noted a few of Ford’s distinguishing characteristics: the thick ocular frames of an architect, the humorous gesticulations of Jerry Seinfeld, and the doughnutphilia of Homer Simpson. “If one finds a box of doughnuts in a hallway, is she forced to eat them, doughnuts being unmistakably delicious?” waxed Ford during a lecture on Book III of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, which, among other things, addresses the question What does it mean to act voluntarily? According to Ford, under Aristotelian logic, eating these doughnuts would not constitute an involuntary act, which only occurs when one is compelled to do something by another or under threat of a greater evil. “Doughnuts are not an absolute good,” explained Ford. “You choose whether or not to eat another’s doughnuts; the act, therefore, cannot be justified.”
Not even doughnuts are an absolute good? This is perfectly acceptable in theory, but, despite being an embittered U. of C. student, I’m also a hopeless idealist, and so decided not to let the issue lie. Instead, I extended an invitation to my doughnut enthusiast of a professor to Dat Donut, the 24-hour (except on weekends) doughnut establishment frequented by south-siders, including hordes of U. of C. students. These doughnuts, at less than $10 dollars per dozen, have a reputation on campus for being seriously good, and what they may lack in freshness at 3 AM they make up for by being served at 3 AM.
However, we decided to go in the afternoon, since Ford had an early flight the next day to Oslo, where he would be attending a conference on free will, which apparently the Norwegians have a lot of. Ford, 36 (“or so”), grew up in San José and has lived in New York City and Pittsburgh. He moved to Chicago in 2007 when U. of C. offered him an assistant professorship in philosophy, his first job out of grad school. In other words, Ford has had many more doughnut experiences than I have.
We ordered the full battery of doughnuts—strawberry, chocolate glazed, chocolate cake, plain glazed, coconut, buttermilk, and, their specialty, the Big Dat, which is easily larger than your face. At Ford’s suggestion we began with the plain glazed, “the pure form of doughnut.” Dat’s specimen exceeded his expectations. “What am I looking for?” Ford asked. “Light—light and airy. This is light and airy.” So far, so good. Ford also had nice things to say about the chocolate glazed: “It’s crispy on the outside. That’s part of what’s good about a doughnut. It’s savory and sweet. It’s grease, bread, sugar. I like it.”
We seemed to have established some sort of baseline for doughnut virtue, and yet a doughnut cannot exist in a vacuum—it is inevitably influenced by societal whims and market forces; never has that been more apparent than right now. Nightwood has been offering doughnuts at brunch for some time; a recent variety is invitingly described as “vanilla custard, raspberry glaze, Peeps.” Popular dessert oasis Mindy’s Hot Chocolate sells brioche doughnuts with hot fudge and caramel corn, while Longman & Eagle currently has on its menu a “Charred Olive Oil Doughnut, Bangladeshi Almond Cream, Tanzanian Hot Chocolate, Hazelnut Praline, Aerated Orange.” Is a doughnut still a doughnut if it’s composed of more adjectives than substantive bites?
Ford expressed his dismay at the current boutique doughnut trend, citing Glazed and Infused among his biggest disappointments, particularly their German chocolate version, which he deemed too dense to qualify as a proper doughnut. “I’m pretty catholic in my doughnut taste,” said Ford. “I don’t like the frills. Like this strawberry thing. I know, ’cause I looked it up online, that’s a special thing, so I felt like I should try it. But I normally would not venture for a pink doughnut.”
Perhaps Ford’s purist preference for doughnuts originated at his favorite childhood spot, Lou’s Donuts in San José, right across the street from the hospital where he was born. “They had fantastic doughnuts. They came in white bags. I’d try to get my parents to get doughnuts every week. And they were hot—fluffy, light, airy.” The shop was renamed Lou’s Living Donut Museum, but this did little to offset its eventual demise in 2006. Lou’s signature flourish was taking the dough lost in the process of punching the hole and sticking it on the side of the completed pastry. Ford also has fond memories of his grandmother, who lived in Napa, making doughnut holes at home, dropping them into the fryer before dusting them with cinnamon sugar. He associated them with Dat’s buttermilk doughnuts, which ended up being his favorite. (On that we can agree.)
I asked Ford whether he thought watching his grandmother make doughnuts as a kid was the reason behind his pronounced liking of doughnuts as an adult. “It was maybe part of it,” said Ford. “But I think that Lou’s Donut was my madeleine.”