I had heard that doughnuts were invented during the First World War as a convenient food for the troops in the trenches. The hole in the middle made it easy to quickly deliver the food to the troops by dropping them over the bayonet on the end of the rifle. However mystery and argument surrounds the origin of the humble doughnut. Archaeologists have recently discovered the petrified remains of cakes with a hole in the centre in early Native American sites in the south-west of the United States. It is not clear though how these cakes were prepared or cooked.
Most historians looking for the origins of the doughnut begin with the Dutch. The Dutch used up pieces of left-over dough by dropping them into hot oil and making little fried cakes known as olykoeks, or oily cakes. To make them more appealing they would shape these pieces of dough into little knots (dough knots) and roll them in sugar. Sometimes they were filled with prunes or raisins. Dutch colonists took the recipe for these oily cakes to America with them.
In 1872 John Blondell was issued with the first patent for a doughnut cutter. His machine was made of wood. An improved version, made from tin, and with a fluted edge was patented in 1889.
In France in 1917 during World War 1 American troops in the front lines were served twisted doughnuts cooked by two Salvation Army ensigns, Helen Purviance and Margaret Sheldon. The pastry was rolled using a wine bottle and then cut to shape using a knife. The Salvation Army girls soon became fondly associated with the doughnut and in 1938 Donut Day was launched in the US to remember the contribution of the girls bringing comfort to the troops, and as a fund raiser for the Salvation Army. It has been celebrated annually ever since. The Salvation Army continues to serve coffee and doughnuts to police, firemen, rescue workers and disaster victims when needed.
In 1920 the first doughnut machine was invented by a Russian refugee living in New York. Adolph Levitt's machine caused the doughnut to became more popular as it was more easily made and able to be mass produced. Machine made doughnuts were presented as "the hit food of the Century" at the World's Fair in Chicago in 1934. By this time Levitt was selling over 25 million dollars worth of machines each year to bakeries.
Doughnut chains, such as Dunkin Donut and Krispy Kreme have made the American version of the doughnut popular around the world, although many countries have their own local versions. In Israel a popular Hanukkah food is the doughnut filled with red jelly and covered in icing. In South Africa there is a version called the vetkoek which is served with mince, honey or jam. In India a doughnut or vada is savoury and made from dal or lentils; while in Indonesia a doughnut is made from flour and mashed potatoes and coated in icing sugar. In Japan they are made with bean paste and in Malaysia with mashed sweet cassava. My favourite is the Spanish churros, a long skinny doughnut which is served hot and dipped in hot chocolate from Juanita's in Brunswick Street, Melbourne.
Where does the word 'doughnut' come from? I have mentioned possible origins as the 'dough knot' or 'dough-nut'. An 1803 English cookbook mentions doughnuts in an appendix on American cooking. An 1808 novel talks about a meal of "fire cakes and dough-nuts". In Washington Irving's 1809 History of New York he describes "balls of sweetened dough, fried in hog's fat, and called doughnuts, or olykoeks". The first use of the alternative spelling 'donut' was in 1900 by George Peck in Peck's Bad Boy and his Pa. The traditional spelling has been 'doughnut' and this seems to continue outside of America, but the alternative 'donut' seems equally acceptable in a language as accommodating as english. As can be seen from the photos above Krispy Kreme and Donut King have different spellings for the same item.
Postscript: Recently in Cammeray, Sydney I was talking with a fellow who said he had just had the best doughnuts in the world at The Colonial Bakery Milson's Point, just beside the Harbour Bridge. I talked to him about the blog and the entry on doughnuts. The following week he suddenly turned up with half a dozen doughnuts for me to try and suggested that I should visit the shop. This I did that afternoon (in the interest of research). At The Colonial Bakery Milson's Point I found a quaint little store filled with all sorts of nice cakes and their famous, award-winning pies. If you are looking for somewhere interesting in Sydney this is the place. A ferry ride, a walk along the shore under the bridge and afternoon tea and a doughnut, and make sure you say hello to Nancy Mobbs who runs the bakery. Are they the best in the world?......well I'm continuing to research this question......they were excellent, but in fairness I do have to try all the rest before making a decision.