National Junk Food Day: How Did Doughnuts Happen?

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Today is National Junk Food Day, an occasion that speaks for itself. To celebrate, let’s take a look at how the doughnut (which is not spelled “donut,” contrary to popular belief) became an American junk food staple. Doughnuts seem right for today’s focus because, unlike many common junk foods, they’re not the kind of thing you hear about too many people making at home, right in their own kitchens. So how they did come to be such a big deal?

Where doughnuts got started

Doughnuts can be traced back to the Middle Eastern cuisines of times long past, but they didn’t take hold in the U.S. until European bakers began using them. By the time Dutch settlers arrived in the U.S. in the 19th century, they had turned the classic doughnut formula into something called oliekoecken, which translates to “oil cakes.” The name couldn’t be more appropriate, as these oil cakes came from blobs of yeast-heavy dough fried in canola oil or pork fat. 

The problem with oliekoecken 

Although word of oliekoecken’s joys quickly spread through the U.S., these sweets were far from perfect. Oil-frying the dough cooked it far more thoroughly on the outside than on the inside, so oliekoecken was often served with a completely uncooked interior. To solve this problem, bakers began stuffing the dough with fillings that required no cooking, such as nuts and fruits. However, some dessert and baked good lovers wouldn’t settle for this compromise, so they began devising other approaches to creating this snack.

How oliekoecken became doughnuts

Among the people working to solve the oliekoecken problem was ship captain Hansen Gregory, whose solution changed both nothing and everything. Hansen didn’t propose altering the formula of the oliekoecken dough. Instead, he suggested eliminating the snack’s center, thereby resulting in a thoroughly-baked food. This solution birthed the modern, hole-centric version of doughnuts.

Or did it?

Although everyone credits Hansen Gregory with inventing the modern doughnut shape, some people have different stories for how exactly he did so. Some have said that as he steered his ship, he would use the spokes of his boat’s steering wheel to impale and store his doughnuts in arm’s reach. Others have said that Gregory didn’t come up with the idea to put a hole in the doughnut’s center, but instead, it came to him in a dream involving angels.

How did the name change from oliekoecken to “doughnut”?

As with Gregory’s motivation for inventing the doughnut shape, there is debate about how oliekoecken was renamed “doughnut.” Some say the name came from the nuts used as fillings for the oliekoecken’s uncooked center. Others say it comes from the dough knot shape of many oliekoecken

How did doughnuts become so omnipresent?

Even after oliekoecken became doughnuts, there were high barriers to these snacks becoming a staple of American junk food. However, in 1920, Russian immigrant Adolph Levitt figured out how to mechanize the doughnut production process, enabling their scaling to the level of popularity they enjoy today.

What’s your favorite doughnut? Sound off in the comments!

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