Were Doughnuts Really Invented in 1847?

Happy National Doughnut Day

National Doughnut Day, the first Friday in June launched on June 7, 1938.  That’s the day when Morgan Pett. a young military doctor, stopped at a bakery for eight dozen doughnuts to bring to a military base. The holiday was started to honor the tradition of the Salvation Army serving doughnuts to soldiers since World War I. On this significant day you might ask: were doughnuts really invented in 1847?

Female volunteers, named “donut lassies” served donuts to soldiers serving overseas in World War I. After the War they continued to serve donuts at places like the Doughnut Hut in New York City’s Union Square and at fundraisers.

 The Birth of the Modern Doughnut

The true historic origin of the first doughnut (a.k.a. donut with 5:1 people preferring this second spelling) is doughy rather than crisp. Many people attribute Hanson Gregory, an American sea captain, with the invention of the ring-shaped fried pastry in 1847 while aboard a lime-trading ship. He was only 16 years old at the time.

Gregory’s mother Elizabeth, was known for her wicked deep-fried dough in which she used her son’s cargo of nutmeg and cinnamon as well as lemon rind, possibly to ward off scurvy. In any case, her pastries could be stored easily on long voyages.

She supposedly put nuts, usually walnuts or hazelnuts,  in the center of her fried dough balls where they would often not cook completely. (Hence, dough-nuts.)

Keep in mind, the concept of these fried dough balls most likely came to Manhattan (then still New Amsterdam) under the appetizing Dutch name of  “olykoek”s which meant oily cakes.  They were sweet dough balls fried in pork fat, typically with  apples, prunes or raisins in the middle where the dough would not cook fully.

A Better Fried Dough Ball

Dissatisfied with the greasiness of doughnuts twisted into various shapes and with the raw center of regular doughnuts, Gregory found a better way to eat his mother’s globs of fried dough.

In an interview with the Boston Post at the turn of the century, Captain Gregory recounted his recollection of the moment 50 years before: using the top of a round tin pepper box, he said, he cut into the middle of a doughnut “the first doughnut hole ever seen by mortal eyes.”

Others say that during a storm, Gregory stuck one of his mother’s fried dough balls onto a spoke of his steering wheel, hence creating a hole in the center.   (He didn’t just toss the dough ball overboard when he saw the sudden storm swell?)

The Ancient Ancestors of Doughnuts

Here’s where history gets gooey.  Petrified fried ring-shaped cakes have reportedly been found by archaeologists at Native American dig sites in the southwestern United States. We wonder who would leave a doughnut uneaten?

 In ancient Rome and Greece, cooks fried strips of pastry dough and coated them with honey or fish sauce.  In Medieval times,  cooks were known to fry small blobs of unsweetened yeast dough, which they drenched  in sweet syrup. Still no holes.

Modern Doughnut Technology

July 9, 1872, John F. Blondel of Thomaston, Maine, patented the first doughnut cutter. A spring-loaded tube pushed offending dough out of the middle of the cake, thus allowing more cooking surface.

In 1920, Adolph Levitt, an enterprising refugee from Czarist  Russia living in New York City, sold fried doughnuts from his bakery.  They were such a hit that his customers, largely a theater crowd, that his fans encouraged him to devise a way to pump out the doughnuts faster.  Once again, necessity was the mother of invention, and the doughnut machine was born.

By 1934, doughnuts were proclaimed the “Hit Food of the Century of Progress” by the World’s Fair in Chicago.

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