The Olykoeks, a predecessor of the donut which literally refers to a ‘fat cake’, were brought to the United States by Dutch settlers in the 1600s. And while these balls of fried dough certainly had their share of fans ( a woman named Anna Joralemon opened a successful Olykoek store in New York in 1673), the round balls of fried dough were missing something. Or rather, there was something that was not missing: the hole.
At one point in history, an aspiring donut chef had a mouth-watering epiphany that would turn olykoek into one of the most popular foods in the world. But who discovered the donut hole? And when did they find out? And why?
We can’t definitively answer these questions, but we can take you to a donut hole and share the story of a New England ship captain’s discovery of a donut hole.
Captain Hanson Crockett Gregory is often credited with being the first person to poke a hole in the center of a donut. But various stories about this discovery give various reasons for Gregory’s motivation. Our favorite version is this:
The panicked captain
Gregory was eating a donut made by his mother Elizabeth Gregory aboard her ship on a pitch black night in 1847 when a storm suddenly struck. Gregory, who had suddenly needed the use of both hands, impaled the donut on the ship’s helm handle and steered the boat to safety. If that’s hard to imagine in your head, here’s a featured illustration by John Huehnergarth that appeared in a 1980 issue of “Boy’s Life”:
Gregory found that poking a hole in a donut made them much more practical as they were easy to handle and could, in a pinch, be stowed on the rudder of his ship if needed. We are skeptical of this side of the story, to say the least.
Captain Penny Pinching
Another version of this story argues that Captain Gregory started poking holes in the middle of his donuts to keep costs down. Our least favorite version of this story goes like this:
Gregory’s mother, Elizabeth Gregory, made dozens of donut-like pastries for her son’s travels. Elizabeth found that the center of the donut did not cook as fast as the outside edges of the donut and that many of her cakes had a somewhat raw dough in the middle. To solve this problem, Elizabeth began to stuff her fritters with fruits and nuts. A historic 1969 cookbook describes Elizabeth Gregory’s donuts:
Elias Gregory was a Portland Maine captain. Her mother, Elizabeth Gregory, was a famous local seaside cook and the originator of the donut. By 1803, all over New England, fried pastries such as fried cakes, Bismarcks, long johns, crullers, and donuts were widely made. Ms. Gregory invented a very original batter recipe that is typical of her community. It contained nutmeg and cinnamon which she was familiar with as her son regularly carried these items as cargo on his ship. The recipe also contained lemon zest. Lemons were the most important thing in a ship’s provisions at this time, as fresh lemons or limes kept the crew from catching scurvy and colds on long voyages.
Mrs. Gregory made the whole recipe with the idea that the pastry could be taken aboard the ship at sea and stored safely for long trips without spoilingâ¦ They were meant to be eaten by dipping them in hot black coffee or tea on board the ship. Mrs Gregory put hazelnuts or walnuts in the center of the dough because she was afraid that they would not cook completely in the center. She called the pastry, donuts, which was exactly what they were.
While Elizabeth Gregory may have been the family cook, it was her son who, according to legend, invented the hole. The book continues:
Gregory was a wise captain who knew the value of a dime. When he docked again in Portland, he went straight to the tinsmith. He had her make a box cutter in the shape of a circle with a small hole in the center. He brought the cutter to his mother and had her make donuts with the center, eliminating the need for expensive nuts in the center. They made a nice fry because, of course, the hole in the center prevented them from having a soggy center.
His crew in the town taverns exulted the great goodness and medicinal qualities of the donuts at sea and although on the next trip the donuts did not have nuts, they were still highly regarded by the crew. Soon, donuts were the most popular pastry in all of America and still are today.
There may be some truth to this story, but Captain Gregory himself told the Washington Post a different story in 1916.
The (probably) true origins of the donut hole
The Washington Post got the truth about Gregory’s “hole” in an interview in 1916. Gregory, 85 at the time, said he was the real inventor of the donut hole, but it was there indigestion, not the pinch of a dime, that had inspired him. .
Gregory said the donuts his mother made were too fatty and difficult to digest, so one night around 1847 he decided to cut the hole in the center of the donut. With the center removed, the donuts were able to achieve a uniform frying, a discovery that Gregory said was comparable to Columbus’ discovery of America. The ship’s captain said:
“It was back, oh, I don’t know what year, let me see, born 31, shipped when I was 13, well I guess it was around 47, when I was 16 years old, that I was on board the ship and discovered the hole that would later revolutionize the donut industry … At that time, we cut donuts in the shape of a diamond, and also in long strips, folded in half, then twisted. I don’t think we called them donuts back then – they were just âfried cakesâ and âtwisters.â Well sir, they were frying all around the edges, but when you had made them edges, the inside was just raw dough. And the tornadoes used to soak up all the fat right where they bent, and they were tough on the digestionâ¦ well, I thought to myself, why wouldn’t a space inside solve the difficulty? First I thought I would take one of the strips and roll it up, then I had an inhale ation, a great inspiration. I took off the pepperbox cover from the ship and cut in the middle of this donut the first hole ever seen by mortal eyes!
“Were you satisfied? “
âWas Columbus happy? Well, sir, these donuts were the best I have ever tasted. No more indigestion – no more fat fillers – but just well-cooked fried donuts.
Gregory took his invention to his mother who started cutting holes in her donuts. Well, the rest is history.
March 26, 1916, Sun. The Washington Post (Washington, District of Columbia) Journaux.com
The story matches the timeline
We haven’t been able to definitively prove Gregory’s story, but we can say it fits the timeline of the donut’s evolution. We searched archival news articles and found several mentions of the words “donut” and “donut” in the early 1800s, but none of these articles described a donut with a hole in the middle. The first mention of donut holes we have been able to find dates back to 1861, a few years after Gregory’s alleged discovery:
03 Jul 1861, Wed. Lancaster Examiner (Lancaster, PA) Journaux.com
An official decision
In 1941, the National Dunkers Association met at the Astor Hotel in New York City to settle the debate over the inventor of the donut hole. Two stories were considered. The first claimed that a Native American accidentally invented the donut hole when he shot an arrow through a fried cake. The second was the above story of Captain Gregory. Gregory’s version won two-thirds of the votes.
01 Nov 1941, Sat The Rock Island Argus (Rock Island, Illinois) Journaux.com