A century ago, not long after the United States entered World War I, the Salvation Army deployed hundreds of volunteers to France to soothe and bolster American troops.
The men were homesick. They were hungry. They wanted a slice of apple pie.
But that, of course, was impossible. The many indignities of war include this undeniable one: A fox hole is a terrible place to bake.
So the Salvation Army troops improvised, frying dough in soldier helmets, producing such delicious doughnuts that when the war was over, when the troops finally came home, the government produced a guide for veterans to open doughnut shops.
This is how the doughnut came to America. This is what led to National Doughnut Day. This is why the line at Dunkin’ Donuts was extra long on a recent Friday morning — free doughnuts, not as a marketing ploy (well, maybe a little), but to remember the sacrifices those men made and the Salvation Army volunteers who comforted them.
They called those volunteers, mostly women, “Doughnut Lassies.”
“As they dipped doughnuts for their boys, they dispensed motherhood,” John T. Edge wrote in “Donuts: An American Passion,” a seminal volume in the genre of historic deliciousness.
- 5 C flour
- 2 C sugar
- 5 tsp. baking powder
- 1 ‘salt spoon’ salt
- 2 eggs
- 1 3/4 C milk
- 1 Tub lard
The most important instruction: “Dust with powdered sugar. Let cool and enjoy.”
Edge, a food historian (what a gig!), identified three important rounds in the popularization of doughnuts. The first was the Salvation Army effort.
“By the close of World War I, the Salvation Army was among the strongest charitable forces in America,” Edge wrote, “and their chosen totem, the doughnut, was an ingrained symbol of home.”
The second was the invention of — the following words are completely true — the Wonderful Almost Human Doughnut Machine, invented by Adolph Levitt, a Jewish immigrant from Eastern Europe.
“When filled with his proprietary dough mix, it cranked out hundreds of perfectly round doughnuts per hour,” Edge wrote. “Placed in a window for all to see, the machine stopped traffic in Times Square.”
Let us pause to consider whether any other food has stopped traffic at The Crossroads of the World.
Anyway, there’s one more round — the third. Edge calls this one “glamour.” It takes place during the Great Depression. By this time, doughnuts are an industry — not big and important like, say, steel, but important. And tasty.
“As the nation slid into economic depression, the industry feared that doughnuts might go the way of the street corner apple,” Edge writes. “So they aligned themselves with America’s emerging aristocracy, the ladies and gentlemen of Hollywood.”
Frank Capra put doughnuts in his movies. There’s that scene in “It Happened One Night” where Clark Gable teaches, as Edge puts it, “doughnut etiquette.” On Shirley Temple’s list of works is this: “Dora’s Dunking Donuts.” Laurel and Hardy posed for photos holding doughnuts.
And you know what?
Doughnuts survived the Great Depression. Hurrah for doughnuts.
While their nutritional value is questionable, their patriotic value is as certain as the round hole at their center, through which eaters can look back through time and see not just food history, but the story of America — of our soldiers fighting for what’s right, fueled by what would become the country’s favorite pastry.
Read more Retropolis: