There’s a sweet place in most hearts reserved for donuts: the chewy texture, the crispy layer of frosting, the sweetness so soft it could almost put you off donuts, but never does, or at least not for long time. In bakeries, the warm yellow glow of trays of donuts welcomed many early morning customers and lightened many loads. I fondly remember the pastries covered in maple frosting that adorned my hometown shop, and chances are you have an evocative memory of a beignet, a madeleine that has been fried.
Fried dough is an old, old vice. It’s probably been on the menu since flour is ground and large amounts of animal fat or oil are available. But donuts as we usually imagine them are a relatively young food. The North American version known by this name in stores around the world appears to have its origins in the decades following the American Revolution, when a Dutch treat took on a new identity.
Reading the stories of the donut, you might be surprised to find that the confection has long been tinged with nationalism. As the new nation of the United States tried to find its place in the world, its people tried to understand what was essential about it – its literature, its national character, its food. This meant that writers and commentators looked back on the country’s (rather short) history with a kind of nostalgia mixed with bravado.
Before New York was New York, of course, it was New Amsterdam, and writers often reflected on Dutch customs of earlier eras with savory fondness. One such custom was the making of fried balls of dough, called oliekoecken, or cakes. A recipe for these treats appears in a 17th century Dutch cookbook: they are leavened with yeast and sprinkled with dried fruit.
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One of the first mentions of donuts in American writing came from Washington Irving, the writer and diplomat, best known for The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Rip Van Winkle. In his 1809 Knickerbocker’s History of New York, he speaks at length of quaint Dutch-American folk customs, describing the “primitive tea parties” of the not-so-distant past: “These fashionable parties were generally reserved for the upper classes, or nobility: that is, those who herded their own cows and drove their own carts,” he wrote with a mixture of sentimentality and condescension. “It was always safe to boast of a huge dish of balls of sweet dough, fried in pork fat, and called beignets, or olykoeks – a delicious kind of cake, now little known in this town, except in the real Dutch families.”