Home Ace Issues Donut Wars: Ace’s Quest for Kentucky’s Hole-y Grail by Rob Bricken

Donut Wars: Ace’s Quest for Kentucky’s Hole-y Grail by Rob Bricken

The Quest for the Hole-y Grail
Cake. Yeast. Chocolate. Sprinkles. Glaze. Cream. Filling.

By Rob Bricken

Is there any icon that so represents the American nation more than the doughnut? It’s with us in our work. It’s in our play. Doughnuts are a melting pot of breakfast goodness, yeast or cake, glazed or frosted, chocolate or sprinkles, just like our great nation. Doughnuts are quick, sweet, and full of gusto, an edible display of the go-getting determination that makes our nation great. Let France have its flaky croissants; Americans need doughnuts to give us the quick sugar rush to get us to work in the morning, throw our kids on the bus, and make big-assed business deals, all before lunch. And we all go great with coffee.

And yet like us, doughnuts are a culinary nation divided. They are together, but they are apart. The diversity that makes them great also leads to bitter misunderstanding. While some still struggle with politics and divisive social issues, another problem is tearing us apart: Cake versus yeast. Chocolate versus sprinkles. No one can decide which is the “true” doughnut. Arguments have arisen; blows have been struck; wars have been fought. In the great conflict over the doughnut, it has often been brother versus brother, one clutching a cruller close to his heart, perhaps the other wielding a cinnamon twirl.

The saga of the doughnut is the saga of America. From its little town beginnings to global dominance over North America, the doughnut has been with us almost every step of the way. In this report, Ace journeyed deep into the glaze to find the jelly filling of truth about our breakfast companions, and emerged covered with sprinkles. Bon appetit.

Le Philosophie de Doughnut

John T. Edge is the director of the Southern Foodays Alliance at the Center for the Study of Southern Culture. John T. Edge knows about doughnuts. “It’s dough fried in oil. And fried dough is fried dough the world over.” Dough and oil are items easily found, no matter the era; all it takes is a quick dip and voila – doughnut.

Ronni Lundy, famed Louisville food author, agrees. “Every culture has a fry-bread,” she adds, invoking the ancient name of the doughnut, “on both sides of the Atlantic. It’s just an easy, tasty thing to make.”

The doughnut has been with us since ancient times, being discovered independently in separate cultures. It’s an intrinsic part of the human race; there is some need within our DNA and chemistry that begs us to fry dough and ingest it. The doughnut is a discovery no less fundamental to our humanity than the discovery of fire or the wheel.

Our inherent dependence on the doughnut can be seen in the office on Friday morning, when the doughnuts are brought in and the frenzy that ensues as people who are generally courteous to each other gnash, wail and tear into each other in order to get the jelly filled doughnut. Or that Dunkin Donuts sells on average, 4 million doughnuts a day, 1.6 billion doughnuts a year. Or that the Guinness Book of World Records lists a man who ate 29 doughnuts in less than five minutes. Or that Spalding’s, the local doughnut-ery here in Lexington, refused to even answer questions for this article in fear that their business would increase.

Not many places fear more business. But not many businesses have their lobby filled at 7am, with men, women, and children salivating for their sweetened disks of fried dough. As intrinsic as the doughnut is to society, the evolution of the doughnut over time has brought joy to many an office, but misery to many as well. Because while almost everyone likes doughnuts, hardly anyone agrees on what the perfect doughnut is.

The Great Divide

“You’re supposed to be able to dunk a doughnut,” says Ed, a trucker stopping in Dunkin Donuts on his way from Indianapolis to Miami. He orders some cake doughnuts of varying flavors, a cup of coffee and rests at a booth, contentedly shoving soaked doughnut in his mustached maw.

Peggy, an early morning customer at Donut Days, disagrees. “Those [cake] doughnuts are too heavy. I like the regular [yeast] kind, because they’re so light,” she says, carrying two dozen to her office for her co-workers.

As the presidential contest still rages (at press), another issue is tearing this nation apart – yeast or cake doughnuts. “These are the two camps, and never the twain shall meet,” pronounces Edge.

Both sides adamantly believe that their doughnut is the “correct” doughnut, and the other a shoddy imitator riding on the fame of the other. The answer is not as simple as it appears.

According to the book Fast Food by John Jakle, the pilgrims brought the original doughnut – cake-y in nature – to colonial New England, probably made from cornmeal or wheat flour. It was kicked around until WWI, when the Salvation Army passed them out to our boys overseas along with coffee and cigarettes, causing massive addictions to all three. Thus the doughnut shot forward in popularity in the 20s and 30s; virtually the entire nation quit working to sit in coffee shops, eat doughnuts and smoke, thus causing the Great Depression. Nonetheless, doughnuts stayed popular, turning into a $300 million a year business by 1960.

Ace’s Rob Bricken makes the donuts.

Dunkin Donuts kept and popularized the cake doughnut in the 50s, still starting in New England and spreading outward like candy-colored sprinkles. As Lundy points out, the cake doughnut was “better suited to the climate up north; it preserved better and it filled you up more.”

Lundy admits, “Doughnut purists would judge the cake doughnut to be the more authentic.” But in the 50s, a sign turned on that would change doughnuts forever. The sign was in front of a Krispy Kreme, and read ‘Hot Donuts Now.’

The first Krispy Kreme was started prior to Dunkin Donuts in 1937, but it was Dunkin Donuts that really created the industry. “It took northern interest in the doughnut to make the South realize what they had,” says Edge. “When Dunkin Donuts took off with their cake doughnuts, the South rose in retaliation with their yeast doughnuts.”

Few could resist the siren song of Krispy Kreme. “The predominance of the yeast doughnut can be directly attributed to Krispy Kreme,” says Lundy, definitively in the yeast camp. “Krispy Kreme is a whole culture. You’re driving down the road, you’re not thinking about doughnuts, you’re not even hungry, and then you see the ‘Hot Donuts Now’ sign, and it’s an act of God. You have to stop, you get your doughnuts, the sugar hasn’t crystallized or liquefied quite yet. They’re made of butter and sugar and clouds…”

“The hot, fresh Krispy Kremes are the ultimate form of the doughnut. You can’t plan on them being ready,” murmurs Lundy reverently. “You can’t plan on wanting them. You just have to depend on the cosmos.”

“The yeast doughnut is almost an ethereal disk of dough,” adds Edge. “No chewing or dunking is required to inhale it. It melts on the tongue… it’s just more decadent, and that’s what a doughnut should be.”

Granted, both Edge and Lundy are southern food mavens, and their bias in favor of the KK is self-admitted. Nationally and internationally, Dunkin Donuts has blown KK out of the fryer, so to speak, hosting over 5000 stores to KK’s 173. But nowadays, both chains serve cake and yeast doughnuts, and the yeast doughnuts are the top-selling style of both.

And thus the battle over which is more important – historical accuracy or national popularity – continues to be waged.

Baked Goods and Bads

The mystery could lie in the doughnut-making process. As is to be expected, the process for making cake and yeast doughnuts is as similar as it is different. To gain the proper perspective, I traveled to the Dunkin Donuts on New Circle Road, managed by one Vallaby “Vally” Patel, to see how yeast doughnuts are made.

At Dunkin Donuts, yeast doughnuts are made by Ramesh Patel, a middle-aged man who doesn’t speak English, who starts making doughnuts at 8pm and finishes at 5am the next morning. Ramesh does all the baking, while another worker adds topping or inserts filling from a series of multicolored funnels.

The yeast doughnut starts out as a 50-lb. sack labeled Doughnut Mix. Ramesh takes five mighty scoops and dumps it into a rollable vat, which contains a milky water, complete with special ingredients. On the sack are instructions; exact temperatures, portions, etc., as determined by scores of Dunkin Donuts scientists (perhaps cobbled together from Germany after WWII).

The vat is wheeled to a large mixing machine, which stirs the mixture with a big metal twist-y thing, corkscrew like, no doubt to very exacting standards. It’s vaguely erotic; Ramesh throws in the yeast, and after about 30 minutes or so, it becomes, magically, a batch of firm dough.

Doughnut dough looks really good. Like cookie dough, but more bready. Ramesh takes the dough from the vat in one gargantuan wad (a good ten to 20-lb thing) where, with every available surface covered in flour – including Ramesh – he kneads the dough into a more aesthetically pleasing dome. The dome is then flattened to a long sheet to the perfect thickness of maybe half an inch. Ramesh then takes a doughnut-shaped cutter in his hand.

Wasting the barest minimum of dough, and with all the flair of the master chef, he cuts out the doughnut, flipping each ring onto his thumb. It’s pretty damn amazing; when his thumb is full, he puts them symmetrically on a rack.

After a tower of racks of rows of dough rings has been created, the tower is inserted into the primer for the priming, which means baking. The doughnuts go into an oven, where they get bigger. Admittedly, priming makes it sound like the doughnuts are now armed and ready to be used against the enemy, presumably one of the local bagel outfits. But Vally assures me that baking is not the proper term.

When the doughnuts are primed, Ramesh dumps them in a large vat of oil, for a few scant minutes; the doughnuts are removed and allowed to cool. Then he takes them to what is in fact a gargantuan tub of pure icing. It measures about 2.5′ x 1.5′; after he positions the doughnuts above the tub, he then grabs a scoop, fills it with icing, and dumps it over the doughnuts, letting the excess fall back into the tub. It is a beautiful, yet horrible thing to see. Afterwards, others tart up the doughnut if necessary (sprinkles and the like), and eventually the complete doughnut is hustled in front of the public for consumption. This process is repeated for 150 dozen yeast doughnuts alone.

Double on weekends. As Vally put it, “He [Ramesh] keeps very busy.”

When asked if he ever had any trouble being a 24-hour store, Vally chuckled. “It’s not like we’re a gas station or something. The people who come in late are all real nice. They just want doughnuts. Who’s going to get upset over a doughnut?”

For the cake doughnuts, I visit Tony Mondelli of Donut Days on Southland Drive. The kitchen of Donut Days is easily twenty times as big as DD; doughnuts are made 24 hours a day. Interestingly, most of the doughnuts are made by machine. Mondelli takes me to the cake doughnut machine, a Wonka-esque assembly line that produced nothing but golden rings of cholesterol that set my heart a pumping.

Tony Mondelli invited me, several times, to take a fresh cake doughnut right off the belt. Doughnut Days’ cake doughnut machine is clearly well-used; Mondelli says it was created back in the 50s, when it was high fashion for men to be doughy and eat doughy. The process is as enticing as it is terrifying. Perched about eye level is a vat of cake doughnut dough, where four steel rods pound the totally liquid dough into the regular and cruller doughnut shapes. The machine sees the dough as a series of 1s and 0s; the 1s are discarded and that’s how the doughnut gets its ring shape. The gooey pre-doughnut is dropped in fours into a waiting trowel of hot oil, where the doughnuts begin to be fried; carried by the currents and conveyor belts to flipper, so that each side is appropriately crispy and coated. It is rather like an inner tube ride to a heart attack. The doughnuts are then scooted out of the oil to another conveyor belt which allows most of the excess oil to drip free (and to be circulated back into the river of cholesterol). It also leads to the third and final stage, wherein the doughnuts, fully fried, brown and cooked, are pushed gently through a literal waterfall of icing, which each doughnut must pass as though into adulthood. A worker then picks the finished doughnuts up, and arranges them symmetrically onto trays.

At least a couple dozen doughnuts are produced every minute. “Does it ever break down?”

The answer is so obvious, Mondelli can only respond, “shoo!” He assures me he and the other worker have become amateur machinists, after having to deal with the problems. One good look at the assembly line, and one realizes no matter what point the machine might break, it would involve a horrendous mess of dough, oil, doughnuts or thick glaze.

Mondelli assures me they’re best right off the track. They look like doughnuts that St. Peter might hand people when they get to heaven.

Joe Burke of Burke’s Bakery knows why people like doughnuts. “Cause they’re good,” he says, careful to insert a thirty second pause before and after his secret, for emphasis.

9 out of 10 ‘experts’ agree

Although discovering the process by which a baby doughnut came into the world was both fascinating and disgusting, it shed no real light on the matter. Both were in fact rings of fried dough, as previously noted. So the only recourse was to have a doughnut taste test, at the ACE Weekly headquarters, to determine the cake versus yeast issue and the best doughnuts in town in a highly unscientific, quite biased, and rather blatant attempt to buy doughnuts on company dough (get it? haw!).

The doughnut makers represented were Donut Days, Dunkin Donuts, Spalding’s, and the fabled bakery of Burke’s, in Danville. We had hoped for a Krispy Kreme, but no amount of torture could induce the interns into driving to Florence for a box of doughnuts. But how we tried.

The taste test would be blind. Doughnuts were to be divided into thirds, and each participant would eat the test from each doughnut before ranking them 1 to 4, equaling points, and thus the doughnuts with the lowest score would win. There would also be a few cake vs. yeast doughnuts tests involved, as long as everyone behaved themselves.

An odd thing happens when doughnuts arrive at a workplace. Most precisely, work stops as employees find numerous reasons to visit wherever the doughnuts are situated.

When you hold a doughnut taste test at work, an even odder thing happens; your co-workers, who usually appear, sane, self-controlled, not above a lame witticism at the water cooler but generally all right people, turn into snarling beasts who will kill you for a savory pastry. The fact that I had purchased too many doughnuts, more than enough for all involved to sustain a tummy-ache made no difference. At the first sniff of glaze, it turned into a frenzy.

Participants entered one at a time until I got bored. Some stuffed the doughnuts in their mouth with gleeful abandon, choking on the yeasty tube as they tried to assign ranks; some chewed thoughtfully, going back to nibble in order to align the proper tests; some sniffed the doughnut as if to measure its bouquet, peering intently at the icing formation before giving the doughnut a long, probing lick.

The results were all over the map.

It was a close race, with each doughnut confectioner getting at least one first and last place nod. In the end, the crispy fried goodness of the Spalding’s doughnuts, with their irregular shapes and extra dose of oil won with 24 points. Some thought the doughnuts too fried, (Doughnuts should not be crispy, said Ace’s Gal Friday, Joan) but many more enjoyed them for that very reason.

Donut Days was a close second, their more traditional yeast doughnut getting many first and second place nods, coming in at 27. It was light, fresh, and both Classifieds Manager Lisa and that blond chick editrix who keeps hanging around (usually looking for food) found that their doughnuts had “the faintest aftertaste of cinnamon,” (though they cleansed their palates with Mountain Dew afterwards, so who can trust them?)

Burke’s was third place with 32 points; many thought Burke’s to be good, but slightly less tasty than Donut Days; but a few, like Editorial Intern Chas Hartman, thought something was weird about the very normal-appearing doughnut. “It tastes… odd. Like it’s out of a high school cafeteria,” he muttered, shuddering slightly.

Poor Dunkin Donuts came in last at a relatively close 37. Their yeast doughnuts, so characterized by cake doughnut sensibilities, were a bit thicker and chewier than their counterparts, which didn’t go over well with the test panelists. But Dunkin still had its fans; Graphic Designer Michael Geneve called it “everything a doughnut should be.” But then he admitted he was from up north, so we didn’t care.

No recounts were allowed, despite Geneve’s protests.

BE the Doughnut

Like this year’s presidential election, the contest of cake versus yeast was a mere farce. Few went in with anything approaching an open mind; the choice between yeast or cake comes early on in life. In the end, there were three “Cake-ys” and eight “Yeast-ers.”

But for some like Steven Tweddell, the preferred doughnut styles was totally dependent on mood. “Sometimes I want a cake doughnut, for dunking,” Tweddell said. “But sometimes I want the other kind.”

As Art Director Jim Shambhu put it, “There’s room enough in my worldview to contain both types of doughnuts.” Or, as food scholar John T. Edge confided, “I like the doughnut that’s in front of me best.”

And this is the lesson we learned: there is no one true doughnut, no best doughnut. They’re all good in their own way, no matter the style, topping of filling. Each doughnut fills its own niche of fried, doughy goodness, and we shouldn’t discriminate. Fried dough is fried dough, as Edge put it; we need to set aside our prejudice and realize each doughnut is good for somebody, and no doughnut is truly bad, as long as someone, somewhere loves it.

In a sense, doughnuts are all filled – with democracy, colored red, white and blue. All the people, all the bakers, all the eaters, all the doughnuts – our diversity is our strength. With all our unique skills and ideas and flavors, we can do anything. But if we squabble over party politics, or age or gender, or topping, nothing gets accomplished, and no one gets to eat.

Together in a tightly-packed dozen we stand, but divided, we fall. When JFK took his trip to Germany and said, “Ich bein ein Berliner,” he thought he was saying, “I am a citizen of Berlin.” In fact, what he said was “I am a doughnut,” because a Berliner is a type of doughnut. Many people have thought this was a social gaffe, but now, I’m not so sure. I think JFK was a doughnut, like we’re all doughnuts. In this light, I’d like to end with a little song.

You may say I’m a doughnut

But I’m not the only one.

I hope someday you’ll eat us

And the world will live as one.