Donut Anthropologist Answers All of Your Burning Donut Questions

4 minute read

June 6 is National Doughnut Day, the day when Krispy Kreme gives away donuts, and artisan shops debut a new wacky creation like “zombie donuts” with cheddar larvae. In honor of this holiday for donut lovers, we talked about the history of the pastry and the state of the donut with Paul R. Mullins, Chair of the Department of Anthropology at Indiana University-Purdue University, Indianapolis, and author of Glazed America: A History of the Doughnut, which explores the pastry as a way to look at the evolution of American consumer culture.

Is it correct to say that the modern donut has Dutch origins?

Every cuisine has fried flour in one form or another, so finding the origin of the donut is simply infeasible. In the United States, the first time the word is used is in reference to a Dutch pastry. I think what you and I call the donut — fried flour with raised yeast and a hole in the center — has its strongest ethnic roots in the olykoek (oily cake).

How did it get a hole?

Nobody has a good answer. You’re much less likely to have a donut cook unevenly when a hole is poked in the middle — that is by far the most logical answer. There were donut shops in the 20th century that spun narratives, but they were just folk tales that were made up to sell donuts. None of the cookbooks into the third or fourth quarter of the 19th century say you should make a donut by placing a hole in the center. So somebody just hit on that and realized it was a good idea.

How did the donut become known as a distinctly American food?

In the early 19th century, donuts appear in American food chapters of English cookbooks from 1810 or thereabouts. So there’s a claim to be made that at least one version of fried pastry is ours from the outset. By the time the Salvation Army’s “Doughnut Girls” were distributing donuts in the trenches during World War I, it was already a familiar smell. The soldiers argue the reason they went to have donuts is because they would literally smell them and were reminded of home. They represent mothers, wives, daughters, sisters, and a sort of feminism and nationalism has been projected onto donuts.

Do you think there’s been a growth in artisanal donut shops since your book came out?

Definitely, that’s the next frontier. There’s a ton of bourgeois donuts appealing to foodies that have emerged in metropolises — Chicago, New York City, San Francisco.

Like the cronut.

Yes, the artisan donut is targeting the same consumers who want to buy local and from a trained chef who’s using distinctive, local ingredients to make the consumer feel smarter. And there’s a bit of class theater to it, as opposed to going to Krispy Kreme, where I don’t really know where its flour came from and don’t care. But to sell artisan donuts, you have to be somewhere with a lot of foodies. It’s a sales pitch that just doesn’t work well in smaller markets.

What’s the most influential donut in pop culture?

In pop culture, the donut symbolism begins and ends with Homer Simpson. I suspect he made consumers more receptive to eating donuts because he does what we want to do — owns up to his bodily desires and doesn’t care if he’s carrying a little extra luggage in the center. But we’ve been disciplined to look at donuts as being bad foods, and Homer almost makes them not seem so bad.

What’s the most surprising thing you learned during your research?

The donut marketplace is incredibly stable, that’s one of the big threads you can take out of looking at donuts over better than a century of mass marketing. During times of economic stress, we’ll cut cable channels, give up HBO if we have to, but it’s rare to give up food, inexpensive treats. That’s just not going to happen.

Do you have a favorite donut?

There’s a donut shop here in Indianapolis called Long’s Bakery, and its stock-in-trade is the standard glazed donut. I’m also willing to try anything that’s filled with vanilla cream.

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