In the mid-1990s, I visited Las Vegas for the first time. I was there for an internet conference, and a friend of mine who had been there many times took it upon himself to show me all the standard tourist sites and make sure I got the complete Las Vegas experience. We walked down the Strip, taking in the obligatory pirate show, erupting volcano, and other spectacles. But there was one sight I had never heard of that was later to become a regular pilgrimage for me: the Krispy Kreme Doughnuts shop in the Excalibur hotel.
At that time, Krispy Kreme hadn’t expanded to become the phenomenon it is today. The only commercial doughnut shop chain I had ever known was Dunkin’ Donuts. But Krispy Kreme was definitely something special. For one thing, visitors could watch the doughnuts being made; a window ran along the side of the shop where the line formed. I was fascinated by the mechanism that flipped the doughnuts over in the oil when they were half-cooked, and watched in awe as they passed through a curtain of glaze. Although doughnuts are such a simple food, I felt I was watching something magical. Then I tasted one, and was even more impressed. I had never known what a fresh, hot doughnut was like—the difference from what I had experienced before is like that of fresh bread hot from the oven compared to week-old supermarket bread. It was light, soft, perfectly sweet—delicious. I couldn’t understand why Krispy Kreme hadn’t taken over the world yet; of course, it was only to be a matter of time.
When a local newspaper ran an article about the history of doughnuts, it got me wondering how many other things about doughnuts I had been taking for granted all along. I decided to do a bit of research.
From Oily Cakes to Doughnuts
Doughnuts as we know them today originated in the mid-1800s. Their predecessor was the olykoek, a treat Dutch immigrants to the U.S. made by frying the leftover bits of bread dough in hot oil. Exactly how the name “doughnut” came to be used is the subject of some disagreement. According to some sources, the Dutch twisted their dough into knots, hence “dough knots”. Others point out that the olykoeken tended not to cook through in the very middle, so some makers would put nuts in the center (“dough-nuts”) to make them more palatable.
The uncooked centers seem to have been, directly or indirectly, the reason behind the hole. According to several widely diverging accounts, the doughnut hole was the invention of a New England sea captain named Mason Crockett Gregory (or Hansen Gregory or Hanson Gregory, depending on who you ask) around 1847. Gregory’s mother Elizabeth made olykoeken and sent them with her son on his journeys to sea. The least likely but most colorful version of the story, and therefore the one I like best, is that Gregory needed a place to put his olykoek while he steered the boat, so he impaled it on one of the spokes of the steering wheel. Other sources say that Gregory came up with the idea in a dream or claimed to have received it from angels; some say he simply didn’t like the uncooked centers (or the nuts his mother filled them with) and poked them out; still others say he may have encountered a cake with a hole in the middle during his journeys and decided to adapt the idea to the olykoeken. Whatever Gregory’s real reason for adding the hole, it had the beneficial effect of making the doughnuts cook more evenly, and the idea quickly caught on.
Success Rolls On
Nearly thirty years later, in 1872, John Blondell received the first patent for a doughnut cutter. Doughnut technology advanced significantly over the next few decades. By the 1930s, automated doughnut-making machines were producing the treats in huge quantities. And in the 1940s and 1950s, chains like Krispy Kreme and Dunkin’ Donuts sprang up, taking mass-produced doughnuts to the masses. In Canada, meanwhile, the name most often associated with doughnuts is Tim Horton, a former hockey player who lent his name to a nationwide chain of doughnut shops.
Fond though I am of Krispy Kreme doughnuts, I have become increasingly aware that the doughnut illuminati don’t take them very seriously. I asked my friend Russ, a doughnut connoisseur, where to find the best doughnuts in San Francisco. Without any hesitation, he said, “Oh, Wirth Brothers Pastry Shop on Geary. They’re the best by far; I’ve been going there for years.” If there was something better than Krispy Kreme, I had to experience it for myself. In the interest of science, I set out on a field trip.
Hole Is Where the Heart Is
Wirth Brothers is a small, inconspicuous bakery; their doughnuts are barely even noticeable in the display case among the cakes and pastries. But I went in and ordered a few, assuring the owner that they came with the highest recommendation. She smiled knowingly; apparently she gets that a lot. The current proprietor is neither a Wirth nor a brother, but she’s been making doughnuts by hand for 28 years, following the recipe of the store’s original owner, who opened the business in the 1930s. She said the recipe is no secret, but that the key is the half-hour of hand mixing they do every morning, which gives the doughnuts their unique texture. “Come back at 8:00 in the morning,” she advised me, “to get them when they’re hot.”
I then headed to the local Krispy Kreme, where even in the evening, the “Hot Doughnuts Now” sign was illuminated, signifying the availability of doughnuts fresh off the conveyor belt (as well as free samples for each customer). I carefully compared the Wirth Brothers doughnuts with the Krispy Kreme, trying to maintain a properly objective attitude. The doughnuts from the bakery were significantly larger, and much chewier. When I bit into one, my teeth met some resistance halfway through; I found this “al dente” quality quite pleasing. The Krispy Kremes, however, were uniformly light; it was like biting into sweet, slightly oily air. I repeated the experiment on another pair of doughnuts, just to be scientifically responsible. There was no doubt: Krispy Kreme was merely fantastic, compared to the heavenly perfection of the Wirth Brothers doughnut. To be absolutely sure, though, I will have to repeat this experiment at various times of day and at numerous outlets around the country. I love science. —Joe Kissell
The first article I read on doughnut history was Sugary Dreams by Silke Tudor in the SF Weekly. A different spin is found in Doughnuts: A Definitive History by Mr Breakfast; yet another version of the story is found in Kimberly Skopitz’s A short history of doughnuts.
Krispy Kreme franchises are spreading like a benign virus, and although profits (and stock prices) have slipped due to the inexplicable low-carb fad, I have every confidence in their long-term success. Dunkin’ Donuts and Tim Hortons are less trendy these days, but still worth a visit.
Read about the history and strategies of Krispy Kreme in Making Dough: The 12 Secret Ingredients of Krispy Kreme’s Sweet Success by Kirk Kazanjian and Amy Joyner. If it’s doughnut science you’re interested in, check out How to Dunk a Doughnut: The Science of Everyday Life by Len Fisher.
I didn’t feel it was worth mentioning the obvious in the article, but the doughnuts I was describing are the traditional, plain glazed, raised (or yeast) variety. Cake-like doughnuts are simply not real doughnuts, in my opinion, and while I do admit to an occasional hankering for a jelly- or custard-filled doughnut, it has never seemed quite right to me to call them “doughnuts” since they’re not shaped like a ring.