Dough fried in oil is a delicacy found worldwide, from Greek loukoumades to Moroccan sfenj to jalebi in India and Pakistan. But in North America at the start of the 1900s, fried dough balls were a regional specialty mostly confined to New England, New York, and a few places in the Midwest.
Just 50 years later, doughnuts would be Americans’ treat of choice — ubiquitous in break rooms, beloved of cops, and, more recently, made fancy by hipsters. But few people know that the doughnut might never have made it big without a world war or two.
In a new episode of Gastropod, “Raised and Glazed,” co-hosts Cynthia Graber and Nicola Twilley explore the evolution of the doughnut: where the name comes from, how it got a hole, and how it became ubiquitous across the United States thanks to the efforts of a few female volunteers working on the front lines of global conflict.
When the United States joined World War I, the Salvation Army sent women to the front in France with a few simple instructions: Lead the men in prayers; play music; comfort the wounded and the dying; and, most importantly, do whatever they could to keep up morale. Conditions on the Western Front were grim: As Salvation Army leader Evangeline Booth recalled in her memoirs of the war, the rain had combined with heavy bombing to turn the entire landscape into a swamp, and “depression like a great heavy blanket hung over the whole area.”
The women made cocoa, fudge, and apple pies to lift men’s spirits. But pies, in particular, were difficult to make — achieving a flaky crust was tricky in the trenches — and sometime in late September 1917, Salvation Army volunteer Helen Purviance suggested focusing on a simpler treat: She and her colleagues could combine flour, sugar, baking powder, salt, eggs, and milk to make doughnut dough. Then, they could fry their creations in a steel soldier’s helmet filled with boiling lard.
The women rolled the doughnuts out with a grape juice bottle, cut them out with a baking powder can, and poked a hole in the middle using a funnel. Dusted with powdered sugar and handed out hot by the thousands, the treats produced by the “doughnut Sallies,” as the women soon became known, instantly became a hit among the men. Even for men who hadn’t come from a doughnut-loving region of the States, the fried rings came to symbolize everything good and comforting. “Newspapers would describe the soldiers looking through the hole in the donut and seeing their mother on the other side,” Michael Krondl, author of The Donut, told Gastropod. “It was a beautiful thing.”
Though the Salvation Army only sent 250 volunteers to the front, these women had a disproportionate impact on the soldier’s psyche; the treats “put pep in every doughboy,” Salvation Army Colonel William Barker told a reporter from the Boston Daily Globe. “Every doughboy felt his mother was somewhere just back of the lines in the midnight mists and damps, frying doughnuts for him just as she used to do.” (Incidentally, the “doughboy” moniker originated from the Mexican-American War, and it had nothing to do with doughnut consumption at all.)
It got to the point that military command would pull strings to ensure that donut-making supplies made it through, despite the fact that the French were surviving on black bread.
“The American soldiers take their hats off to the Salvation Army,” wrote a New York Times correspondent in 1918, “and when the memoirs of this war come to be written the doughnuts and apple pies of the Salvation Army are going to take their place in history.”
Popular culture brought this newfound love of doughnuts back home. Songs like “My Doughnut Girl” and films like Fires of Faith, which featured scenes of a Salvation Army Sally distributing doughnuts to bedridden men, helped cement the doughnut’s new status as an American icon. Doughnut entrepreneurs popped up, ready to supply a nation suddenly hungry for the treats feeding the troops, and companies advertised mixes that allowed the home baker to make doughnuts themselves.
When fighting ended, the Salvation Army continued to sell doughnuts to raise money through the 1920s and the Great Depression; and when war broke out again in Europe, volunteers from both the Salvation Army and the Red Cross once again brought doughnuts to the front. They were assisted by a newfangled invention: an automatic doughnut-making machine, which allowed doughnuts to be made faster and in greater quantities than ever before.
Post-war, doughnuts continued their spread across the country, fitting perfectly with the newly industrialized landscape, the rise of the automobile, and the growth of women in the workforce. For a whole new class of car-based commuters, a doughnut shop became the perfect place to stop for coffee and a sweet circular cake for breakfast. For the secrets of how doughnuts continued to take over the universe — helped along by one Massachusetts-based chain and the Cambodian “Donut King” — check out Gastropod’s episode, “Raised and Glazed,” available wherever you get your podcasts.