The Dense and Disputed History of the Doughnut

By the account of popular history, the doughnut came into existence as we know it June 22, 1847. It was the brainchild of a sailor by the name of Captain Hanson Gregory. As with most accounts of history, the devil is in the details, and the details suffer regular debate.

Whether Gregory takes the cake for the doughnut recipe will forever remain to be proven, but his story is entertaining at least. In reality, humans have been frying dough in various forms as far back as the Greeks in Western history.

But, before we get into that, let’s agree on one fact: whether we’re talking cake or flake, the word is doughnut, not donut. The latter came into popularity as a misspelling in the first half of the 20th century. ‘Nuff said.

Origin Story

Loukoumades | sbs.com.au

Several cultures may have had the same great idea independently of each other. This happens throughout history with great ideas. Some label these phenomena as zeitgeist.

The doughnut zeitgeist may have risen on two sides of the world. According to the Smithsonian Magazine, we have what appears to be proof that Native people in the United States fried up balls of dough.

“… doughnuts in some form or other have been around so long that archaeologists keep turning up fossilized bits of what look like doughnuts in the middens of prehistoric Native American settlements.”

It’s a thin argument, but we do have plausible accounts that the Greeks fried dough in oil, then coated the tasty fried dough in honey among other toppings. Later in Greek history, they started calling them loukoumades, borrowed from the Turkish word for the same treat, Lokmas.

Who knows what were the recipe details of the first versions, but the modern versions of these balls of fried dough look and taste about the same as doughnut holes. You’d assume that’s what they were if you ate them.

There were Arabian and Persian versions as well, possibly before anyone else. In fairness, sweet, fried dough balls could be as old as the agricultural revolution, which started around 10,000 BCE.

Recorded History

The Dutch often take credit for the predecessor for the modern doughnut with their olykoeks (Oily cakes), but in more recent history even this claim has suffered scrutiny.

In 2013, a 213-year-old recipe book turned up with English origins, which described almost to T what Captain Gregory previously described as his invention.

The British creator of “dow nuts” was some unknown cook, Mrs. Fordham. Her recipe appeared in the book, penned by a Baroness named Elizabeth Dimsdale.

BARONESS DIMSDALE’S RECIPE

Ingredients: A quarter of a Peck of Flower / A pound of moist Sugar /  10 Eggs (Yolks & Whites) /  One Nutmeg (grated) / 3/4 of a pound of fresh butter /  A quarter of a pint of Yeast.

  • First melt the Butter over the fire in Milk; skim the Butter off. 
  • Mix the Sugar and Nutmeg with the Flour, making a hole in it at the Top.
  • Strain the Eggs and Yeast mixed together through a Sieve into the Flour; then put the Butter skimmed off the Milk into it also, with as much of the Milk as necessary to make it into a paste.
  • Let it stand by the fire half an hour to rise, throwing a Cloth over it. Then roll it out thick or thin as you like, cutting it into nuts with a jagging Iron.
  • Throw them into some Hogs-lard almost boiling hot; if quite boiling they are likely to be black and if it does not near boil, they will be greasy. Stir them with a skimmer with holes.
  • Take them out with it, put them in a Cullender but do not put the hot ones to the cold, or they will be heavy.
  • The thinner the Paste is rolled, the lighter and more crisp it will be.
  • A little Sugar should be first put to the yeast and a little Milk, and set it by the fire an hour to rise.

Whether it was the Dutch or the Brits, Gregory tipped his hat to the Dutch per his mother’s olykoek recipe.

Accounts

Gregory was sea captain from Maine. He enjoyed his mother’s olykoeks but suffered the uncooked centers of the round shapes. To the Boston Post in 1917, he said:

“Now in them days we used to cut the doughnuts into diamond shapes, and also into long strips, bent in half, and then twisted. I don’t think we called them doughnuts then—they was just ‘fried cakes’ and ‘twisters.’”

This matches what we know of history at the time. There was no ring-shaped standard for olykoeks, but they did suffer the issue of cooking through. As Gregory said to the Post:

“… they used to fry all right around the edges, but when you had the edges done the insides was all raw dough.”

Gregory found that the raw dough upset his stomach, so he came up with a solution…

“I took the cover off the ship’s tin pepper box, and—I cut into the middle of that doughnut…”

Thus, the doughnut was born, and Gregory went about sailing the known world peddling his creation.

In truth, Gregory may have only solved a problem other folks in the doughnut zeitgeist were solving. Olykoeks were yummy, but problematic for all bakers. Removing the middle made sense.

Lore

The stories around the Gregory account hardly stop there. Some say that his mother put a nut in the middle of her olykoeks, knowing that they wouldn’t cook in the center. Gregory simply knocked out the dough-nut, then claimed the result was his invention.

Other lore paints him at the helm of his ship, with more wheel spokes than hands, so he skewered his olykoek on one of the spokes.

These tales persist to this day as the truth, even though Gregory’s personal account in the Boston Post doesn’t mention them.

At some point, we have to throw up our hands and ask, “who cares?’ Doughnuts are the best thing since olykoeks, which were the best things since loukoumades.

If you have a problem with any of them, I’ll have yours thankyouverymuch.

Sources: smithsonianmag.com, washingtonpost.comfood52.com