How Doughnuts Conquered the World?


In yesterday’s post, I noted how ultra-processed foods hijack children’s brains similar to addictive substances. This BBC article discusses one such ultra-processed American morning delicacy and how it conquered the world.

According to BBC, the friend doughnut treat, have a rich history spanning centuries and continents. Their journey to America begins in ancient civilizations, the Dutch settlers, known for their “oliekoecken” or oil cakes, brought these early doughnuts to America in the 18th century.

According to the article, the earliest mention of doughnuts in American writings came from Washington Irving, the writer and diplomat, best known for The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Rip Van Winkle, who wrote in his History of New York about ‘primitive tea parties’:

These fashionable parties were generally confined to the higher classes, or noblesse: that is to say, such as kept their own cows and drove their own wagons. It was always sure to boast an enormous dish of balls of sweetened dough, fried in hog’s fat, and called doughnuts, or olykoeks – a delicious kind of cake, at present scarce known in this city, except in genuine Dutch families..

More than 50 years after Irving’s writing, the evolution of doughnuts continued, and achieving the modern circular shape – “but the true how-and-why of this transformation have been lost to time, buried by a just-so-story involving a New England sailor and his mother”.

In 1847, Elizabeth Gregory, a New England ship captain’s mother, made doughnuts with cinnamon, and lemon rind, famously adding hazelnuts or walnuts to the center, hence the name “dough-nut.” However, it was her son, Hanson Gregory, who claimed to have invented the ring-shaped doughnut by punching a hole in the center, ensuring even cooking.

The 20th century marked a turning point for doughnuts with the invention of the first automated doughnut machine in 1920 by Adolph Levitt, a Russian-born immigrant in New York City. This innovation led to mass production and the proliferation of doughnut shops, making doughnuts more accessible.

During World War I, doughnuts gained further prominence when women volunteers, known as “Doughnut Lassies,” served them to American soldiers in France, providing comfort and a taste of home. This cemented the doughnut’s status as an iconic American snack.

Post-war, doughnuts became even more entrenched in American culture. The rise of chains like Dunkin’ (originally Dunkin’ Donuts) in 1950 and Krispy Kreme in 1937 played a significant role in popularizing doughnuts nationwide. These chains introduced various flavors and styles, expanding the doughnut’s appeal.

Today, doughnuts are celebrated globally, with each culture adding its unique twist. From the French “beignet” to the Japanese “pon de ring,” doughnuts continue to evolve and delight taste buds worldwide. Despite their deep-fried nature, doughnuts remain a symbol of indulgence and comfort, transcending cultural and geographical boundaries.

As the article highlights, “Doughnuts have gone from being a humble snack to an international sensation,” a testament to their enduring charm and versatility. Whether enjoyed with a cup of coffee or as a festive treat, doughnuts hold a special place in the hearts of many, making them more than just a dessert but a piece of cultural heritage.

Acknowledgements: The initial draft of this post was generated using ChatGPT-4o.