I grew up down the street from a doughnut shop, by which I mean: I’m an American. Muffins don’t move me, nor scones, nor sweet rolls, nor any of the breakfast pastries of the world (croissant, cornetto, brioche, kolache). My life has been encircled by doughnuts.
My neighborhood doughnuttery was Cottage Doughnuts of Newton Corner, Massachusetts, located between the fabric shop and the five and dime. Note the air in doughnuts. The spelling donuts is an abomination, unless proceeded by the word Dunkin’ (though Dunkin’ Donuts has recently dropped Donuts from its name and is now only Dunkin’). Donut smacks of all those headachy misspelled words for mid-century people in a hurry, lite, nite, thru, ‘til.
In high school I was Queen of the Shakespearean Players, still the highest office I have ever held, and periodically the Chancellor of the Exchequer and I would procure doughnuts so that we might sell them at a profit from a folding table in the school’s main corridor. I can’t remember what we spent the money on: I’m not sure the Shakespearean Players did anything in the years of my rule. Later, in college, I worked weekends behind the circulation desk of a public library, and every Saturday somebody would buy a dozen doughnuts, though only three of us were ever on duty. Later, when I was head of my own circulation department in Somerville, Massachusetts, the Friday before every long weekend our director would buy doughnuts from a particular, exceptional doughnut shop in Charlestown called Lori-Ann’s. I remember them as better than any other doughnut anywhere, light, ungreasy, all air, with just a hint of a crust. I never went to Lori-Ann’s myself. Those doughnuts were special. They had to be brought to you.
The doughnuts of my high school and college days weren’t from the Cottage Doughnuts of my childhood, which was gone by then. The entire neighborhood of my childhood—the Paramount Movie Theater, the Woolworth’s, the Boston Fish House, Mac’s Smoke Shop, any number of other oddball shops I’ve forgotten—was erased, the block of buildings sold and then set on fire and then torn down, in that order, in the early 1980s. The House of Pizza and the fabric shop moved, as did the barbershop, and Cottage Doughnuts already had a sister shop down the street, though it, too, later closed. The Howard Johnson’s across the street, whose insides I could even now precisely map (the dining room, the ice cream counter, the Pong machine) turned into an Applebee’s, which turned into something else. Perhaps I cling to doughnuts because doughnuts still exist in the world, though Woolworth’s and Howard Johnson’ses don’t.
Washington Irving, that most American of writers, is responsible for the earliest mentions of both doughnuts and bowling in American literature. (He spelled it properly. The ughless donut is a 20th-century perversion.) Irving’s doughnuts were fried in hog-fat; he proclaimed them delicious.
Now I live in Austin, Texas, which offers a variety in the doughnut line. There’s an all-night doughnut shop with a drive-through: it opens at 7:30pm and closes at noon the next day. There’s a place called Donut Taco Palace, which, until the University of Texas made them stop, sold “doughnuts” shaped like hands making the hook ‘em, horns sign, a sort of gesture of loyalty favored by fans of the Texas Longhorns (but which looks to me exactly like the gesture of loyalty favored by Satanists or heavy metal enthusiasts). A doughnut shaped like a hand is not a doughnut. Doughnuts are round. Crullers and long johns are stick-shaped. Anything else is fried dough.
Austin is also home to plenty of modern doughnut shops, including a place that essentially uses its enormous doughnuts as platforms for other things: buns for hamburgers, or the underneath of varieties of toppings, which I believe renders them sundaes. For two dollars, you can add a scoop of ice cream. Their menu includes a category called Donut entrees.
In Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome—a book largely about how unpleasant its author thought it must be to be poor and from New England—the thwarted lovebirds eat pickles and doughnuts for supper. I was forced to read Ethan Frome more than once as a student; I seem to remember, and who could blame me, a teacher telling us that pickles and doughnuts were meant to suggest sex, but can you think of a less compelling sensual experience than a meal of pickles and doughnuts? Perhaps it was meant to put off us teenagers from any sort of sexual congress.
I grieve to report that in 2018, the least sexy year since official record keeping began, a Springfield, Missouri doughnut joint introduced a pickle-flavored doughnut. They did not call it the Ethan Frome.
These days doughnuts are brightly colored, pink-frosted, studded with multicolored sprinkles or fruit cereal. The doughnuts of Cottage Doughnuts might have been photographed in sepia: maple bars, butter crunch, chocolate glazed, Boston crème. The only color was the ovoid implication at the injection site of the jelly doughnuts—bless the jelly doughnuts, those confectionary geodes, always threatening to drop a clot to your shirtfront. Doughnuts, like life, will leave their mark, your mustache flocked with powdered sugar, your fingertips sticky with glaze.
Doughnut holes—the bolus of dough excised in the making of a doughnut, and then deep-fried—are surgical waste. Not holes but the opposite of holes. They remind me of amputated toes. Recently I was in a fashionable bakery and saw a doughnut being served with a doughnut hole balanced upon it. I was about to type its doughnut hole, but of course there’s no way to know. It would be unlikely. Doughnuts don’t have dignity at the best of times, so to crown them with a random doughnut hole strikes me as awful. If there were a doughnut-based religion, such things would be against the dietary rules.
Some modern doughnut shops put their doughnuts in a flat bakery box—to preserve the frosting, probably, and to add some glamor to the reveal when opened. I prefer my doughnuts the old way, packed in tunnel formation in a rectangular container, wax paper clinging to the frosting. Dirty, in a way; by dirty I mean low-down and sexy.
When Dunkin’ Donuts announced that it was planning to abridge its name, I irritatedly tweeted that they shouldn’t have been able to do so without a New England-wide popular vote. The next day a reporter from the Wall Street Journal got in touch with me. We had a very earnest conversation about Dunkin’ Donuts, though the story never ran.
At the end of the interview, the reporter said, So you’re a novelist. Do any of your characters go to a Dunkin’ Donuts?
No: I don’t write autofiction.
But doughnuts have worked their way into my work, as doughnuts will. There are several varieties of doughnuts in my new novel—small sugared cake doughnuts, crullers, a box of chocolate iced long johns. None of these are my favorite. I like a raised sugar doughnut, or a glazed chocolate cake doughnut. At least I used to.
I don’t eat doughnuts any more, did I mention that? I have already eaten all the doughnuts of my life, doughnuts so indelible that I needn’t take the tiniest Proustian nibble to refresh my memory. I haven’t forgotten them, the texture, the whiff of the fryer that pleasantly rises into your nose. The way—I’m thinking now of a raised doughnut, my absolute favorite—your front teeth meet in the hole itself. In this way you bite into both air and doughnut, nothingness and plentitude, at the same time. Powdered sugar that falls like New England snow, granulated sugar that crunches like the salt on icy New England roads.
Like most works of art, doughnuts are defined by an absence. They are modest and hollow. They belong to anyone.
Elizabeth McCracken’s new novel, Bowlaway, is available now.