Donut History – Who Knew?!

One of my duties as dramaturg on a production at Geva is to provide some information about the context of the show, which our graphic designer Chris Holden takes and creates an artistic display for the lobby. In Superior Donuts, Franco (played by James Holloway) advises Arthur (Skip Greer) to entertain a woman by telling her the history of the donut. I wondered – if Arthur really did assemble a lecture on the history of the donut, what information would he have to impart?


Donuts have been around FOREVER. In ancient Rome and Greece, cooks would fry strips of pastry dough and coat them with honey or fish sauce.  In Medieval times, Arab cooks fried unsweetened yeast dough and drenched them in a sugary syrup. In 15thcentury Germany, fritters were filled with meat or mushrooms. Paczki, the traditional Polish pastry akin to a jelly donut, have been eaten in Poland since the Middle Ages. Paczki are eaten especially on Ostatki, or Fat Tuesday, a tradition which was originally meant to use up all of the sugar, lard and eggs before Lent.

The first cookbook to mention donuts was an 1803 English cookbook with an appendix of American recipes. In 1809, Washington Irving’s History of New York described “balls of sweetened dough, fried in hog’s fat, called doughnuts, or olykoeks.” American donuts became increasingly popular in the 1920’s – especially in theatres.  I was surprised to learn (although maybe I shouldn’t have been) that the origin of the American style ring-shaped donut is clouded in controversy.

One story claims that early colonial settlers accidentally discovered the joy of fried dough one day when a cow kicked a pot of boiling oil onto some pastry mix, creating fried cake. But the settlers didn’t share the culinary inspiration with their overseas counterparts.

Other stories give credit to Dutch traditions (rather than the accidental inspiration from a cow), which claim that the Pilgrims brought olykoeks – or “oily cakes” – with them to the colonies. These were sweet balls of dough fried in pork fat, frequently filled with apples, prunes or raisins. The only problem with them was that the centers never cooked fully.

So how did the donut get the hole?

In 1847, Elizabeth Gregory sent her 16 year old son, Captain Hanson Crockett Gregory on a sea voyage with several dough-nuts and the recipe to make more. As one story goes, unable to hold the dough-nut and steer the ship at the same time, he impaled the dough-nut on a spoke in the wheel, creating a hole in the center. Pleased with himself, he ordered the ship’s cook to prepare dough-nuts with holes in the center for ease.


The traditional American donut has an important place in the history of the armed forces, too. During World War I, the Salvation Army sent women to France to lift the spirits of the soldiers – and to serve them comfort food. Their food of choice? Hot donuts. The women became known as “Doughnut Girls,” and the soldiers, “doughboys.” During World War II, women from the Red Cross also served donuts to soldiers – earning them the nickname “Doughnut Dollies.” During the Vietnam War, the Red Cross again sent women to assist with troop morale. While they were still called “Donut Dollies,” their main purpose was to create recreational programs for the soldiers.

According to legend (and I LOVE that there are legends about donuts…), dunking donuts in coffee became popular after actress Mae Murray, thought to be the inspiration for Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard, accidentally dropped a donut in her coffee one day at Lindy’s Deli on Broadway.

Who knew?

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