Doughnuts (or donuts as we prefer to spell them) are a delicious, sweet fried dough that come in many different varieties. But where did this beloved treat that people all over the world enjoy come from? We decided to investigate the history of donuts and share what we found with you.
From ancient times to oil balls in the USA
The earliest recorded reference we could find was among the ancient Greeks and Romans who enjoyed fried cakes soaked in honey. A later record of the combination of oil and dough appears in the Bible, so that’s a really long time ago!
These yummy treats eventually spread throughout Europe, and by the 16th century, European bakers had developed the first doughnut-like pastries which were typically filled with fruit, nuts, or sweetmeats.
However, the doughnut as we know it today is thought to have come from Dutch immigrants who took their tradition of making “olykoeks”, or “oil cakes,” to America in the 17th century. These cakes were made by frying lumps of dough in pork fat until they were golden brown and later became known as, or “oil balls” in English. Does anyone fancy an oil ball? Sounds delish (not)!
How the hole came to be
In the mid-19th century, an American ship captain, Hanson Gregory claimed to have invented the doughnut as we know it today. It seems he was dissatisfied with the greasiness of the olykoeks, and found that the solid hunks of dough were crispy on the outside but raw on the inside. So, at the age of sixteen, while working on a trading boat, he decided to punch a hole in the middle of the dough using a lid of a tin pepper box before frying.
This created a ring-shaped pastry that was easier to cook and had a more consistent texture.
When he returned home to Maine, he showed his method to his mother who deep fried up a storm. Her ring-shaped doughnuts became a local sensation, and apparently, the rest is….well, history!
Doughnuts in war times
Doughnuts were largely considered an American food throughout the 19th century and really took off in popularity during World War I, when the Salvation Army sent 250 volunteers to France with supplies and a plan to bake snacks for the U.S. troops stationed there. However, when they got there, they found that ovens were hard to find, so resorted to fry pans they had at their disposal. Filling their pans with lard and heating over a fire was easy for them to do and they happened to have all the ingredients to make doughnuts, so they seemed like the logical morale-boosting snack choice for the soldiers.
Inspired by Hanson Gregory’s method, the volunteers rolled out the dough with juice bottles and shell casings, cut the donuts with empty baking powder cans, punched out the holes using part of a broken coffeemaker, and fried them in their pans or oil. These donuts the soldiers enjoyed became a symbol of comfort and home for them.
The female volunteers, who became known as “Doughnut Lassies”, were so dedicated to their work that they risked their lives to ensure the soldiers got their donuts. In a book, The War Romance Of The Salvation Army, by Evangeline Booth, the daughter of the Salvation Army’s founders (later the general of the Salvation Army), she describes one volunteer’s response to the regiment leader when she was told to stop serving doughnuts to troops under fire – “Colonel, we can die with the men, but we cannot leave them.”
According to the National World War I Museum and Memorial, Kansas City, Missouri, Crisco later published recipes for wartime doughnuts that called for swapping valuable lard for their vegetable shortening.
Following the war, the association between doughnuts and the military helped them become a popular snack in general American cuisine and because the ingredients were adaptable and affordable, frying donuts in hard times was not only common, but also seen as patriotic.
Doughnuts to help others
In 1938, the Salvation Army used doughnuts to help raise money for people in need during the Great Depression. World Doughnut Day commenced then and continues to this day. OMG Decadent Donuts continues in this philanthropic tradition with our many good works in helping others including running our own fundraisers using doughnuts.
Where are we at with doughnuts now?
From ancient Greece to Dutch settlers and American soldiers, today, you can find donuts all over the world. They come in a variety of shapes, sizes, and styles as sweet (or sometimes savoury) treats and you can buy them, sometimes baked, sometimes fried, in places like bakeries, coffee shops, supermarkets and of course from us.
However, we decided to take our OMG! donuts to the next level by making them an inclusive treat that everyone can enjoy, so ours are free from gluten, diary, eggs, wheat, yeast, nuts, and sulphites with nothing artificial and dusted in sugars made from fruit, vegetables, and spices.
Our dream is for this yummy snack with a fascinating history to continue being a beloved treat, regardless of dietary requirements or preferences, and a great excuse to help others for generations to come. You’re welcome!