The most common contemporary doughnut is glazed with a hole in the middle. It accompanies millions of coﬀee breaks every day. But there are a bewildering variety of
other kinds: solid, jam or jelly-ﬁlled ones that are rolled in sugar; fondant-iced ones shaped like a sausage; sausage-shaped ones that are slit down the middle, piped full of custard, ﬁnished with icing sugar and perfect with orange juice. There are triangular ones that are ﬁlled with sweet apple mix; or round ones that are sprinkled with hundreds and thousands or chocolate vermicelli, becoming every child’s fantasy treat. The hot fresh doughnut is much more than just the ultimate fast food. Alone amongst morning goods it has transcended all barriers of culture, geography and diet. This article explores the early history of this amazing food and suggestions that some of the explanation for its contemporary iconic status is contained in this history.
What is a doughnut? Is it a fried pastry? A fried bread? A fried cake? A raised fritter? We are dealing here with the hybrid of two different kinds of bakery goods, two distinct genera of confectionery: bread and cakes. The doughnut is made from risen dough, like bread. It is also sweetened and ﬁnished like a cake. Sweetness presents problems of deﬁnition. I deﬁne the doughnut as wheat-based risen dough which is fried and then ﬁnished sweetly. It can be either solid or have a hole in middle. I am therefore assuming that the risen quality and the sweetness are more important than the ring shape because though the ring shape is very important in the way in which the word doughnut has spread linguistically, it was actually rather a late development in the doughnut’s overall history.
Sally Levitt Steinberg’s The Doughnut Book is the only previous work on the history of the doughnut. It is a wonderful book but does not focus on the origins of the doughnut or its life before the mass production of the twentieth century. Steinberg ﬁlters the story of the doughnut through that of her grandfather who invented a doughnut-fryer and therefore only really focuses on the history of the doughnut after the First World War and only in the USA. As the later history of the doughnut is told in her book, this article will concentrate more on the question of origins and early history. However, the World Wide Web is alive with speculation on the origins of the doughnut and there are some wonderful sites that claim to explain how it was invented. Some are ridiculous but fun:
THE PARTIALLY TRUE HISTORY OF THE DOUGHNUT
Many historians died to get this information on the web. Use this knowledge with great care. In early colonial times, Dutch settlers arrived on US soil seeking freedom from the strictly enforced Writs of Pastry. These laws were created after a freak accident in which a cow kicked over a giant fryer causing much of Strudeldorf to be drenched in hot oil and fried to a golden brown. The new arrivals, careful not to mention the Strudeldorf incident back in Holland, were allowed to resume the making of their one true passion: fried cakes.
And others come close to the most probable origins:
In every country that makes bread, there arises the question of what to do with the leftover scraps of dough. In England, they dropped the bits into soup or water, and made dumplings. But in Holland and in Germany, cooks dropped the extra into boiling oil, and made fry-cakes, or olie-koecken. The Dutch fancied up their leftovers a bit more by shaping them into decorative knots (dough knots), and rolling in sugar afterwards.
There is a case for the doughnut being a North American original. In Oklahoma in the south-western United States archaeologists have discovered the petriﬁed remains of a round cake with a hole through the centre. The cake was apparently fried in the fat from a slaughtered animal and made of a coarse kind of wild wheat, presumably ground between stones and mixed with water into dough. It is not clear if the dough was risen but later evidence suggests that it could have been fried. A nineteenth- century account of a prairie breakfast gives some idea of how these very early doughnuts might have been made, though the dough would have been much simpler and coarser in earlier centuries.
Richard Burton, the explorer, travelled to Salt Lake City in 1860 and enjoyed a prairie-style breakfast of strong bitter coﬀee, thin slices of bacon and antelope steak. The steak: ‘Cut off a corpse suspended for the beneﬁt of ﬂies outside, was placed to stew within the inﬂuence of the bacon’s aroma.’ To go with the meat there was some bread: ‘The meal is kneaded with water and a pinch of salt; the raising is done by means of a little sour milk, the unpretending chapati, ﬂap-jack, scone or, as the Mexicans prettily call it, “Tortilla”. The dough, after being manipulated upon a long, narrow, smooth board is divided into “biscuits” and “dough-nuts” and finally it is placed to be half cooked under the immediate inﬂuence of the antelope.’ Burton looked further into the status of the biscuit and doughnut and added a footnote: ‘The western “biscuit” is an English Roll: “cracker” is English biscuit. The “dough- nut” is properly speaking “a small roundish cake, made of ﬂour, eggs, sugar, moistened with milk and boiled in lard.” (Webster) On the prairies, where so many diﬀerent materials are unprocurable, it is simply a diminutive loaf like the hot roll of the English passenger steamer’.
The doughnut name was applied to the European version of the doughnut. However that prairie breakfast was actually the fusion of the indigenous tradition and the European import. The American Indian original was called ‘fry bread’ and it played a ceremonial
function in Native American culture. Early photographs of it are of a ﬂat cake like a nan. It might be that the hole was merely the collapsed centre which would have been made intentionally thin to ensure that it cooked, or it may be that the Native Americans invented the doughnut with a hole thousands of years before the Dutch introduced it to the colony. The problem with this claim to being the ﬁrst doughnut is that the shape does not really deﬁne the doughnut.
If Native Americans have a contested claim, then whose is the real one? It is impossible to separate out a single line of descent for our doughnuts from prehistory to the ﬁrst written records. We can only generalise about the way in which bakery goods developed and the way that the repertoire of the bakery came together. The Stone Age doughnut is clearly the way in which this simple food originated and therefore the Native American doughnut is in a pretty good position for claiming to be the point of origin for all doughnuts. But as a point of origin it probably exists in all cultures that made the step from nomadic to settled life because in all these cultures bread was made and sweetened bread developed. In most that sweetened bread was also sometimes fried or boiled in fat.
Given my deﬁnition, there are three key things that needed to be present for the doughnut to be born: frying, wheat and rising. One part of the explanation for the contemporary success of the doughnut comes from its risen quality. In understanding the history of the doughnut we therefore have to explore the history of the process of yeast creating risen bread. Around 9000BC the Egyptians began the process of the domestication of grain and, because of the regular ﬂooding of the delta by the Nile, the fertility existed to cultivate these crops in significant amounts. Bringing wild grains under control and gradually cultivating them into strains to increase the harvest produced surpluses. From the earliest times of Egyptian civilisation the ability to produce and store a surplus allowed farmers to stay put during periods when the Nile did not flood sufficiently to replenish the fields. This surplus resulted
in the development of many diverse professions, amongst them bakers. It also, at least in one account, explains the creation of the Pyramids:
During the slack time of the year [Pharaoh] dealt with the problem of temporary unemployment, and kept the work force in good heart and muscle (conditions which can only be achieved by constant hard work) by having them build for him the most sumptuous ediﬁces ever conceived.
The very slow improvement in the methods of cultivation and the quality of milling equipment created a market hierarchy in the kinds of bread products created based on the kinds of grains used. White bread made from wheat ﬂour was generally eaten by the rich and considered the ﬁnest quality. Poorer households used coarser bread made from barley and poorer kinds of wheat, including whole wheat. Overall this brown and black bread was seen as less desirable. The emphasis on white was related to purity and seems to have been based on a judgement about which dough would contain fewer imperfections that might damage teeth. Aside from these diﬀerences between kinds of bread, it was, as a staple, itself indicative of a poorer person in death:
Diet was dependent on wealth and status. There are significant disparities between the food included in the tombs of the wealthy and that provided to poorer individuals in their graves. At Deir el Medina chief workmen were buried with meat, game, and poultry, whereas ordinary workmen and their families were simply furnished with bread and dom nuts [from the gingerbread palm].
Grain provided the basis for differentiation between different kinds of bread. The second element and another hierarchy was introduced by the realisation that risen dough was lighter, ﬁlled with ‘air’ and therefore must have seemed intrinsically better for you than the ﬂat breads. The process by which the ancients came to
use yeast as a rising agent was one of trial and error, slow evolution and then quite rapid scientiﬁc codiﬁcation. For thousands of years bread was not leavened at all. Flat bread, as we have seen, was baked in the coals. At some point around 4000–6000BC the Egyptians discovered that leaving the bread to ferment before baking it made it rise and be softer after it was cooked. Later still, they realised that leaving some dough aside each day to begin the process the next day produced even better results. The second staple in Egypt was beer. The two products were produced in the same buildings, as Elizabeth David puts it:
What more likely than that the fermenting liquor sometimes spilled over, reaching the kneading troughs and the dough itself ? Eventually someone must have realised why the bread made from such dough, although it may have been thought to have been spoiled, rose better and was more satisfactory than that made with only the straight grain leaven, spontaneously fermented, and so the ﬁrst barm- rasied bread was developed.
Bread was central to the social and economic life of Egypt but also to its culture. Herodotus in his account of Egypt relates the following story. The Egyptians tended to see themselves as the ‘ﬁrst of all men’. When Psammetichos became King he wanted to test this idea so he devised an experiment. He took two new-born children and gave them to a shepherd to bring up. He ordered that no one must speak in their presence. After being kept in isolation for two years the shepherd entered their room one day and
both children fell before him in entreaty and uttered the word ‘bekos’, stretching forth their hands. At ﬁrst when he heard this the shepherd kept silence; but since this word was often repeated, as he visited them constantly and attended to them, at last he declared the matter to his master, and at his command he brought the children before his face. Then
Psammetichos having himself also heard it, began to inquire what nation of men named anything ‘bekos’, and inquiring he found that the Phrygians had this name for bread.
Thereafter the Egyptians accepted that the Phrygians came ﬁrst. The story obviously says much about Egyptian arrogance and the process by which they would learn and improve, but for me the choice of ﬁrst word is symbolically central to the reality of life in the Nile valley. What is most intriguing in all this is that the Egyptians did not have any idea how the yeast was working. A chemical proc- ess they did not have an explanation for formed a crucial element in their entire civilisation. I suppose it would be nice to say that the same would be true in our age with respect to computers or even electricity. The diﬀerence is that there are people in our civilisations who actually understand how these things work. Those, the Priests, who claimed to understand the physical world of ancient Egpyt were largely making it up because so much remained unknown. In Elizabeth David’s words the circumstance of the dough rising, ‘together with its very mystery, accounts perhaps for the curiously ambivalent attitude towards the leavened bread and leaven generally as expressed in both the Old Testament and the New.’ Two biblical passages in particular refer speciﬁcally to this ambivalence. The ﬁrst is from the Old Testament, Exodus 12:31:
And he called for Moses and Aaron by night, and said, Rise up, and get you forth from among my people, both ye and the children of Israel; and go, serve the Lord, as ye have said. Also take your ﬂocks and your herds, as ye have said, and be gone; and bless me also. And the Egyptians were urgent upon the people, that they might send them out of the land in haste; for they said, We be all dead men. And the people took their dough before it was leavened, their kneading troughs being bound up in their clothes upon their shoulders. And the children of Israel did according to the word of Moses; and they borrowed of the Egyptians
jewels of silver, and jewels of gold, and raiment: And the Lord gave the people favour in the sight of the Egyptians, so that they lent unto them such things as they required. And they spoiled the Egyptians.
The second comes from the New Testament, 1 Corinthians 5:7:
Your glorying is not good. Know ye not that a little leaven leaveneth the whole lump? Purge out therefore the old leaven, that ye may be a new lump, as ye are unleavened. For even Christ our passover is sacriﬁced for us: Therefore let us keep the feast, not with old leaven, neither with the leaven of malice and wickedness; but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.
The ﬁrst quote gives rise to the Passover tradition of eating only unleavened bread because the leaven had to be left behind in the ﬂight from Egypt. Its symbolic importance might go deeper than this. Before the Jewish people came into contact with the Egyptians they were still living a nomadic existence as shepherds. They learnt their baking from the Egyptians and they adopted a settled life there. As Jacobs puts it in his history of bread, ‘It must have astounded the Hebrews, occasional tillers of the soil as they were, to ﬁnd a people who devoted their entire day to the preparation of bread.’ Because of the amount of moving around they did, the Jews did not have stores of ﬂour or permanent ovens. They were therefore probably still eating unleavened bread before they went into Egypt and this was being baked either in the coals or on the hearth top. Once they settled they learnt how to use the kind of ‘barm or liquid yeast’ that the Egyptians developed from brewing. They became very good bakers:
Their best bread was of wheat, made from specially sifted ﬂour (kemach soleth, the ‘essence of ﬂour’). This ﬂour was chosen for sacriﬁces to Jehovah; it was also used in making bread for the rich’
It is no accident that the major symbol of the domestic life of the Jews that is to be left behind is the leavening. As Elizabeth David points out, the barm was stored in jars. This indicates the volume being used each day in the preparation of the bread. By leaving it behind, the Hebrews were returning to their roots. This symbolism of course continues into the Christian religion and the use of bread as the Host.
The eating of unleavened bread is in part to remember the ﬂight from Egypt but the matzos are much older and retained their place in Jewish life during the time in Egypt and after, irrespective of the Exodus story. However, the Exodus story provides the key to why unleavened bread remained the favoured option when God was around. It was what had been eaten when the Jews lived as nomads before the entry into Egypt and it was therefore what they returned to afterwards. Paul is picking up these subliminal associations in his use of the leavened bread as a term of abuse. Elizabeth David hints at something else that might be behind the attitude expressed here to yeast. Yeast is a form of living mould. It is this mould that we are not supposed to be bringing into the presence of a God. I wonder if it was also the awesome mystery and the of the consequences of that mystery that held the Jews back from taking the leavening with them and inspired them ever-after to celebrate this lack foresightedness.
Liquid yeast and the other methods of rising the dough required skill. The Jewish bakers learned their trade in Egypt and the story of the Exodus shows us a civilisation in which bakers worked, alongside brewers, producing a full range of goods. They developed fancy loaves sprinkled with seeds and ﬂavoured with honey. In these fancy loaves there are also traces of the frying of risen dough and its sweetening with honey but they are very dimly there and mainly second-hand accounts from later Greek historians. All we can say with conﬁdence is that the Egyptian bakers travelled the ancient world spreading their expertise, exporting their surplus wheat and seemed to have had a particular impact on Greece. Greek bakers
in turn became highly prized members of rich households. When the Romans conquered Greece, the expertise spread once more. It is from the Greco-Roman world that the ﬁrst written record of our doughnuts appears.
As the profession of baker spread and the quality and quantity improved, in turn the position of baker became vested with importance and a certain amount of regulation and protection. The bakers of Constantinople, for example, had a range of privileges speciﬁed in a document of c. 895 (Book of Eparch, 18):
Bakers are never liable to be called for any public service, neither themselves nor their animals, to prevent interruption of the baking of bread.
This meant that people began to write about bakers as a separate profession. By the ﬁrst and second centuries AD we have the ﬁrst descriptions of the range of bread products available:
‘There is a classiﬁcation of bread in the Plants of Tryphon of Alexandria, if I can bring it to mind’, said Pontianus, getting in first: ‘leavened, unleavened; flour bread, meal bread; wholemeal, more laxative, he says, than white; emmer bread, millet bread (meal bread is always made from lesser wheats, he says, it cannot be made from barley); then those named after the method of baking: oven-bread, mentioned by Timocles in Honest Robbers (‘I discovered a warm tray lying there, so I ate some of the warm oven-bread’).
There was also atabyrite bread, achaene loaves – similar to American hoe cakes, bread baked in ashes, the biscuit – something like a rusk, wafer bread, neighbour bread, lard-bread, cheese bread, and half- loaf. In other words by the second century we have the elements of the bakery that are recognisable today. Strong white ﬂour was the basis for bread products, ﬁner ﬂour for cakes. Brown bread was made with coarser and less reﬁned grains and with wholewheat. Bakeries were central to social and commercial life, and places of
innovation. Amongst this great range of products we begin to ﬁnd traces of the ancestors of the modern doughnut.
We can say ﬁrmly therefore that the elements of the doughnut and things closely related to it existed up to 6,000 years before Christ was born and therefore some 8,000 years ago. We can also say that we have direct written evidence for the existence of the doughnut at least 1,800 years ago.
It is a passage from Athenaeus’ The Deiphnosophists (Banquet of the Learned) which gives us our ﬁrst written glimpse of the ancestors of the doughnut. Athenaeus was a Greek writer of the second century born in Egypt, later in Alexandria and then in Rome. His Deiphnosophists is a distillation of ancient learning in the form of a dinner-party conversation. In passing the writer mentions honey and oil bread, ‘loaves of unbolted bread and oily olive-cakes’:
….drop-scones, mentioned by Antidotus in Chorus Leader (‘took hot scones – why not? – folded them over and dunked them in must’) and by Crobylus in The Suicide (‘and taking a tray of white scones’).
This passage, as translated by Andrew Dalby, goes on:
…Lyncieous of Samos, in his letter to Diagora, comparing the foodstuﬀs made in Athens with those at Rhodes, says: ‘even the loaves of the market place are exalted amongst them. They bring them in at the beginning of dinner and in the course of it till none is left, and when the diners have ﬁnished and are full they serve up what are called ‘dipped scones’, a very pleasant aﬀair so compounded of sweets and softness and so symphoniously soaked in must that a true miracle occurs – hunger recurs in the eater through the joy of eating.
We cannot tell if the cakes are fried in fat in the brazier or baked amid coals. It seems more likely that they were dropped in a pan
on the ﬁre and cooked like drop scones that can be done in a pan with some fat. The dropped scone is at the harshest analysis a ﬁrst cousin of the doughnut and most of the elements of the doughnut are present. Risen dough is fried and sweetened. There are some more tantalising references in The Deiphnosophists that we should not just pass over:
A form of roll called Kollabos is mentioned in Aristophanes in Masters of the Frying-pan, ‘Each of you take a roll;’ and again, ‘Or fetch me the paunch of a sucking-pig killed in autumn, with some hot rolls’. There rolls are made of new wheat, as Philyllius makes clear in Auge: ‘Here I come in person, bringing the fruit of wheat three months in the growing, hot rolls as white as milk.’
This is intriguing because of the emphasis on the whiteness of the rolls, making them ideal for frying and the closeness of the fat from the suckling pig to the fresh dough. Later still we have the dough being tied into a knot:
The best that one may get, ay, the ﬁnest in the world, all cleanly sifted from the rich fruit barley, grows where the crest of glorious Eresus in Lesbos is washed by the waves. It is whiter than snow from the sky. If it so be that the gods eat barley-meal, Hermes must go and buy it for them there. In seven-gated Thebes, too, there is good barley, in Thasos, also, and in some other towns; but theirs seems like grape stones compared with the Lesbian. Grasp that with understanding sure. Supply yourself also with the round roll of Thessaly, well twisted in the maker’s hand, which Thessalians call krimnitas, but the rest of the world calls chondrinos.
Athenaeus gives us all the main ingredients of the doughnut at once: the risen dough made of white ﬂour, ﬁnished with honey or sweet grape juice and the tying in a knot, which is, as we shall
see, one version of the doughnut from which the modern form is directly descended. But it is from Cato On Agriculture that the clearest picture of the ancient doughnut emerges.
Cato was a vigorous conservative and opponent of all things Greek. His study is a sort of handbook for how to run a farm in the Roman world, complete with the minimum rations needed to keep your slaves alive. It was probably written as a set of private notes on best practice. Interwoven in the general instructions for running the property are recipes for particular essential products. There is a small study of the section of On Agriculture concerning baking, written by Ernestine F. Leon of the University of Texas and published in the Classical Journal in 1943. Leon notes that, like the Egyptians, the Romans pursued baking as a profession and that the commercial bakery was an established institution. The Romans established a ‘college for bakers to improve and teach’ baking techniques. By 100BC there were 258 licensed bakers’ shops in Rome, and many public ovens for people who lived on the higher ﬂoors of Rome’s many multi-storey tenements and could not have an oven inside. The bakeries themselves must have been incredibly hot and unpleasant places. In his study of everyday life in Rome, Jérôme Carcopino notes that quite sizeable ovens with chimneys that might even have taken steam and smoke out of the building were a rarity in Rome but were found in Pompeii:
Only a few bakeries in Pompeii had an oven supplied with a pipe somewhat resembling our chimney; it would be too much to assume that it was identical with it, for, of the two examples that can be cited, one is broken oﬀ in such a way that we cannot tell where it used to come out, and the other was not carried up to the roof but into a drying cupboard on the ﬁrst ﬂoor.
In Cato’s case the baking was domestic rather than public and in the country rather than in the town. His household would have baked on an open hearth in a covered earthenware casserole. Butter
was not used as fat in cooking by the Romans and its place was taken by cheese. Sugar was unknown and replaced by honey which contains a much larger quantity of water. Cato is speciﬁc about the kinds of ﬂour to use in the various cakes. He suggests semolina, used extensively in pasta making today or soft ﬂour for more cake- like recipes. He suggests combining the two for pastry. Reﬂecting the variety of bread products available in the ancient world, Cato lists ten. According to Leon, bread-ﬂour in this recipe is semolina and emmer is ﬁrst-grade cake ﬂour. The most complex recipe was for the placenta.
76. Placenta to be made thus: 2 lb. bread-wheat ﬂour to make the base; 4 lb. ﬂour and 2 lb. prime emmer groats to make the layers. Turn the emmer into water: when it is really soft put it in a clean mixing bowl and drain well; then knead it with your hands, and when it is well worked add the 4 lb. ﬂour gradually, and make into sheets; arrange them in a basket to dry out.
Presumably, as Leon notes, some water is added to the mixture to make the dough workable. It is also likely that people would have been familiar with these techniques or that there would have been someone on hand to supervise. There is a general presumption that the written instructions are aids to the process of apprenticing new cooks. The recipe goes on:
When they are dry rearrange them neatly. In making each sheet, when you have kneaded them, press them with a cloth soaked in oil, wipe them round and damp them. When they are made, heat up your cooking ﬁre and your crock. Then moisten the 2 lb. ﬂour and knead it; from this you make a thin base. Put in water 14 lb. sheep’s cheese, not sour, quite fresh; let it steep, changing the water three times; take it out and squeeze it gradually dry with the hands; when properly dry put it in a mixing bowl. When all the cheese is properly
dried out, in a clean mixing bowl knead it with the hands, breaking it down as much as possible. Then take a clean ﬂour sieve and press the cheese through the sieve into the mixing bowl.
The washing of the cheese seems to be important to remove the excess water and salt. The next stage is to sweeten the mix:
Then add 4 lb. good honey and mix it well with the cheese. Then put the base on a clean table which gives a foot of space, with oiled bay leaves under it, and make the placenta. First place a single sheet over the whole base, then, one by one, spread the sheets [with mixture] from the mortar and add them, spreadig them in such a way that you eventually use all the cheese and honey, and on the top put one more sheet by itself.
The image conjured here is of the Greek and Turkish dishes made of successive layers of wafer thin ﬁlo pastry and cheese and spinach or of similar desserts from around the middle east which feature layers of pastry and sweet cheese. Next comes the cooking:
Then draw up [the edges of] the base, having previously stoked up the ﬁre; then place the placenta to cook, cover it with the heated crock, and put hot coals around and above it. Be sure to cook it well and slowly. Open it to check on it two or three times. When it is cooked, remove it and coat in honey. This makes a one-gallon placenta.
He follows it with variations:
77. Make spira as follows. Taking quantities as required, proceed as for placenta, but shape diﬀerently. Spread the tracta on the base liberally with honey. Then work as if you were drawing out a rope; place them thus over the whole base neatly. Then complete as for placenta, and bake.
78. Make scriblita as follows. For the belt, the tracta and the cheese, proceed in the same way as placenta, but without honey.
Before arriving at the deep-fried, risen dough and sweetened, Roman doughnut:
79. Globi to be made thus: mix cheese and emmer as above; make as many balls as you want. Put fat in a hot bronze pan: cook one or two at a time, turning them frequently with two sticks. When cooked remove them, coat in honey, roll in poppy-seeds, serve.
80. Make encytum in the same way as globi, except that you use a deep pierced dish with which you stream into the hot fat; form neatly as with spira, turn with two sticks and use these to present. Coat likewise. Allow to colour, but do not overheat. Serve with honey or with mulsum.
As Leon comments:
Globi, named from their shape, are the Roman equivalent of doughnuts. Cheese and meal are mixed in equal volumes. They may be made in any size desired, though there was probably a more or less standard size. These cakes are fried one or two at a time in a bronze dish set on a tripod in the coals and ﬁlled with hot fat. Varro, however, preferred oil. The cakes are turned with two batter sticks, for forks were not used in Roman kitchens except huge ones employed when broiling meat.
The doughnut clearly existed as a distinct cake by the time Cato was writing in the second century. Its character had begun to be formed. There is an image in many American cookbooks of the doughnut as a home-made thing, something which is, indeed, evocative of the home. However, for much of its history the doughnut has been more of a commercial than a domestic product. While it was made
in domestic settings and features in domestic cookery books in some shape and form it is in public forums that we ﬁnd many more traces of it from Roman times to 1800, in the travelling fairs and festivals and as an early form of fast food in the cities.
The roots of the festival, fair and show are deeply embedded in the notion of an indigenous and ancient culture. In the English case the conﬂict between the role that feast days and festivals played in pagan times and the striving for conformity under the early Church, led to some speciﬁcity which is useful for our purposes. The Venerable Bede, in his Ecclesiastical History, recounts instructions sent from Gregory to Augustine:
I have, upon mature deliberation on the affair of the English, determined that the temples of the idols in that nation ought not to be destroyed; but let the idols that are in them be destroyed…That seeing that the temples are not destroyed, the people may the more familiarly resort to the places to which that have been accustomed. And because they have been used to slaughter many oxen in the sacriﬁces to devils, some solemnity must be exchanged for them on this account, as that on the day of the dedication, or the nativities of the holy martyrs, whose relics are there deposited. They may build themselves huts of boughs of trees about those churches, which have been turned to that use from temples, and celebrate the solemnity with religious feasting, and no more oﬀer beasts to the devil, but kill cattle to the praise of God in their eating.
Thereafter the feast day of every parish seems to have become the pretext for a festival with many of same characteristics as the pagan feasts. A Puritan, Stubbs, in an Anatomie of Abuses in 1585, lamented that ‘Every town, parish, and village, some at one time of the year, some at another, (but so that every one keeps his proper day assigned and appropriate to itself which they call their wake-day), useth to make great preparation and provision for
good cheer, to which their friends and kinsfolk far and near are invited, insomuch as the poor men that bear the charges of these feasts keep the worse houses a long time after.’ Bakers were often travelling craftesman who took their trade and skills with them. ‘One of the native products indispensable for the feast was bread. On a great estate this bread might be baked in one’s own oven, but public bakers were common and their craft was strictly regulated by law. The baker who adulterated his ﬂour or sold a loaf under the legal weight was liable to severe penalties.’
As each parish had a special day the number of festivals increased and it was diﬃcult to have so many fairs on a weekday. Therefore by special permission the village could have the fair on the following Sunday. Thus by the reign of Edward I, many villages were holding fairs in their churchyards on Sundays. Travelling pedlars and traders went from fair to fair oﬀering their goods in competition with the local tradesmen; livestock was slaughtered and roasted. Animals also started be traded. Owing to the damage reportedly wreaked on gravestones, Edward I banned the fairs and feasts from churchyards and they transferred to village greens and commons which allowed them room to grow. Kings and Queens granted licences to the larger fairs that became signiﬁcant commercial meetings, while others retained more of the atmosphere of the original festival. Gradually, the former became standardised as the county shows, the latter became travelling fair grounds.
Martha Carlin, writing of the fast-food industry of the medieval world, described the Romans as the originators of fast food in an urban setting. Many ordinary Romans lived in tenement buildings. The cheapest ﬂat, at the top, often lacked hearths or ovens for cooking. Poorer people purchased hot food from commercial or communal ovens and street vendors. By the Middle Ages with fewer urban centres than under the Roman Empire, the vendors concentrated in places of pilgrimage like Winchester, which boasted two professional cooks in 1110 and nine in 1148. Popular items purchased from these vendors included waﬄes (oublies), light
pastries (nieules) and wafers (oublies). The equivalent street vendors in Paris in the thirteenth century oﬀered amongst savoury items ‘hot pasties (chaus patez), hot cakes (chaus gastiacus), hot wafers (chaudes oublies), hot pancakes (galetes chaudes), rissoles (roinseeoles), hot flans (flaones chaus), hot tarts and simnels (chaudes tartes et suminseacus).’
London had its own street vendors by the early 1170s along the River Thames. By the late thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, a ‘variety of specialist retailers of ready-to-eat food can be identiﬁed in London and in the larger provincial towns’. There is a pudding- seller in Norwich in 1287–88 (by 1312–12 there are at least nineteen in Cockrowe); York had 35 by 1304. In London, amid many other types were ﬂanners and waferers and pie bakers.
The reputation of these vendors was generally bad because they catered for the poorest. However, well-oﬀ travellers or wealthy households supplemented their own carried provisions or kitchens by buying from the shops. Carlin concludes:
Fast food ﬂourished in medieval English towns among those who could least aﬀord it, but whose circumstances made it irresistible. For the working poor, especially those living alone, snatching a meal in the middle of the day, or returning exhausted to a chilly room after the markets were closed, fast food vendors oﬀered a hot meal that was ready to eat and required no laborious preparation and clean-up.
The London vendors developed into a feature of the areas of the city that snaked along the edge of the Thames:
The artisans of several crafts, the vendors of the various commodities, and the Labourers of every kind, have each their separate station, which they take every morning. There is also in London, on the bank of the river, amongst the wine-shops which are kept in ships and cellars, a public eating house: there every day. According to the season,
maybe found meat of all kinds, roast, fried, and boiled, ﬁsh large and small, coarser meat for the poor, and more delicate for the rich, such as venison, fowls, and small birds…This is public cookery, and is very convenient to the city, and a distinguishing mark of civilisation.
Amid this teeming mass of vendors, there are the bakers themselves:
Then is bread street itself, so called of bread in old time there sold; for it appeareth by records, that in the year 1302, which was the 30th of Edward I., the bakers of London were bound to sell no bread in their shops or houses, but in the market, and that they should have four Hallmotes in the year, at four several terms, to determine of enormities belonging to said company.
Many diﬀerent kinds of goods have been fried in the past and frying was often a feature of festivals and feasts as well as of street food. Fritters in a wider variety of shapes, sizes and ﬂavours, often played a part in feasts. They can be seen as ancestors of the doughnut and were sometimes quite close in nature. For example payne puﬀ, which featured at English medieval feats, ‘is identiﬁed with pety pernauntes, and appears to be another name for pain pendu, that is, a fried brioche.’ If this feast or celebration was taking place in Italy or France in the medieval period, then there was something with the strange-sounding name of mistembec:
Take as much risen wheat dough as you wish, and a little starch dissolved in tepid water; with this, thin the dough to the consistency of sherbet. Put it into a dish with holes pierced through its bottom and sides, and drop it into hot oil or pork fat in various shapes as you please. When they are cooked and crisp and still hot, put them into syrup made of sugar and honey, and remove them immediately. [From Tractatus de modo preparandi et condiendi omnia cibaria.]
The origins of the word mistembec are obscure. Odile Redon, Françoise Sabban, and Silvano Serventi, the authors of The Medieval Kitchen who reproduced this recipe, searched dictionaries of Latin, French and Italian but could ﬁnd no trace: ‘For Marianne Mulon, the editor of the Tractatus, the word is evocative: mis en bec, ‘put in the mouth’, is what mistembec means for her. Yet it makes sense to connect misembec with myncebek or nysebek found in English texts, which are also fritters made with yeast batter. Some English and American scholars suggest that this odd-sounding and incomprehensible word could come from Arabic. And mistembecs, glossy with honey or sugar syrup, do remind us of the tempting window displays of neatly stacked sweets in the Middle Eastern groceries.’
If this medieval feast were Jewish then the fat was vegetable and the doughnut came in a variety of shapes, sizes and ﬁllings. If it were in Morocco or Algeria then the doughnuts were Sfenaj, made with raisins and eaten for breakfast. In Tunisia doughnuts were called Yo-Yos (see also for this name the contribution from Michael Symons, below) and traditionally made with orange juice and zest.
Earlier, I discussed some of the meanings of the risen quality of the doughnut. The second element that is important and that we see in the medieval period is the frying. Frying was often part of the festival. It is a way of making celebration food. There is metaphysics about the festival that remains echoed in the fringes of life in the twenty-ﬁrst century. The fairgrounds that we visit in summers or at bank holidays exist at the fringes of the conventional structures of society. Thus the food of the fair represents something which is part of and connected to the fringes, the alternatives to ordinary life. Partly being the by-product of a larger festive occasions or events, they connect indulgence in sweetness and freshness with the excitement of the moment. On the fringes of society and as an expression of something that you could not or would not do at home. This contemporary connection is perhaps best seen not via
the neat boxes of Krispy Kreme doughnuts but by experiencing fresh ones bought from a van at the seaside.
The feast days and the fairs took street food out of the cities and into villages and smaller towns. The pattern in Britain was replicated across Europe. Doughnuts – fried risen dough ﬁnished sweetly – featured as a standard part of the kind of fast food served at these fairs and carnivals. The doughnut came out of the ancient world associated with feasts and spent the medieval period and much of the early modern as a feature of feasts, festivals and saints’ days. The background in feasts meant that it was at once domesticated but retained its position as something reserved for a special occasion. And true to the spontaneity of its origins, the doughnut never lost its slightly gypsy image. Though served in the smart coﬀee houses of New York as early as 1673, it remained a mainly outdoors food. In 1809 Washington Irving recorded seeing an ‘enormous dish of balls of sweetened dough, fried in hog’s fat, and called doughnuts, or olyoeks’. Hazlitt later recorded seeing a common English form of the doughnut: ‘At Baldrock, Herts, the children call…[Shrove Tuesday] Dough-nut day, from the small cakes fried in brass skillets over the ﬁre with Hog’s lard’. [Brand’s Popular Antiquities, 1847]. The most famous nineteenth-century doughnuts of all, the Isle of Wight doughnuts or Bird’s Nests, were also strongly associated with this Shrove Tuesday tradition. These provided the standard recipe in Eliza Acton’s Modern Cookery for Private Families:
ISLE OF WIGHT DOUGH-NUTS
Work smoothly with the ﬁngers four ounces of good lard, and four pounds of ﬂour; add half a pound of ﬁne brown sugar, two tablespoonsful of allspice, one drachm of pounded cinnamon, half as much of cloves, two large blades of mace, beaten to powder, two tablespoonsful of fresh yeast which has been watered for one night, and which should be solid, and as much new milk as will make the whole into a rather
ﬁrm dough; let this stand from an hour to an hour and a half near the ﬁre, then knead it well, and make it into balls about the size of a small apple; hollow them with the thumb, and enclose a few currents in the middle; gather the paste well over them, and throw the dough-nuts into a saucepan half ﬁlled with boiling lard; when they are equally coloured to a ﬁne brown, lift them out and dry them before the ﬁre on the back of a sieve. When they are made in large quantities, as they are at certain seasons in the island, they are drained upon very clean straw. The lard should boil only just before they are dropped into it, or the outsides will be scorched before the insides are suﬃciently done.
It is likely that doughnuts reached the USA with the Mayﬂower. Many early settlers, however, were not English but Dutch and German. The Dutch doughnut, or olyoek, was very similar to a Native American fried-bread dish. Thus doughnuts were established in American colonial baking from the outset. The combination of the indigenous and the colonising also reﬂected the fact that almost all cultures have something that is recognisable as a doughnut. As such this is the perfect American artefact: at once particular and universal. For the twentieth-century story of the doughnut, refer to the work I mentioned earlier by Sally Levitt Steinberg.
In conclusion let me bring together some of the elements of the history of the doughnut that make it special. There are three things, the risen dough, the process of frying and the sweetness of sugar. These are brought together in a mass-produced food that is almost universally available in the developed world. The mass production of the doughnut reﬂects the mass production that now dominates the whole of the bakery trade. This individual product has disappeared from the kitchen entirely. In this sense the doughnut is now a public food, it can only be ‘shop’ and as such it is true to ancient origins. But in the contemporary world the doughnut is more than just a morning good. People act
diﬀerently around doughnuts. They write strangely about them and they use them to describe a host of diﬀerent things that have the same shape: the word is aggressively expansionist. It has moved out of the bakery into maths, politics, astronomy, chaos theory, motor racing, the navy, and engineering. The shape, the torus, has been likened to God, the hole in the centre to the Devil. Eating doughnuts has replaced smoking as acceptable cultural shorthand, in a range of ﬁlms and television programmes, for indulgence and crumpled non-conformity. Yet they are also the snack of choice for television cops. Celebrities use them as badges of normality. They have made major inroads into our collective consciousness. Beyond their status as a consumer icon and a marketing triumph, they are a metaphor for the victory of globalisation, capitalism and liberal democracy. To consume is to be free and the regular consumption of large quantities of pointless fat is the ultimate freedom.
Doughnuts also speak to us at more subliminal levels. Doughnuts are a naughty, anti-food. Their very deep-fried, high- sugared, disposability makes them, in the world of positive eating, an easily accessible form of rebellion. They are our childhood at the seaside, both indulgence and escape. A sugar rush that is instantly infantilising but also empowering. I know this is wrong but I will do it anyway: memory, marketing, commodiﬁcation and a jam ﬁlling. As Homer Simpson asked himself, ‘Doughnuts. Is there anything they can’t do?’