Has the kooky doughnut fad finally gone too far? Gone off the deep end? Jumped the shark? I was recently at the taping of a Fox News episode where we tasted more than a dozen different doughnuts from Fractured Prune, a Maryland-based doughnut chain that promises numerous combinations based on its 19 glazes and 13 toppings. I expect they taste better at the store than in a Manhattan studio. But, still, how did we get to this orgiastic excess of fried dough rings?
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The origins of sweet fried dough are lost to history, but it’s a good bet that we’ve had doughnuts as long as we’ve had frying. Certainly the ancient Greeks and Romans had their own version of the hot, greasy treats. Medieval Arabs dropped blobs of yeast dough into fat rendered from a special kind of fat-tailed sheep before soaking the fritters in syrup. Medieval Europeans boiled theirs in pig fat, which meant doughnuts were off limits on the many non-meat days declared by the church.
As a consequence, there were widespread fried-dough frenzies prior to the 40-day doughnut desert, otherwise known as Lent. Perhaps the greatest doughnut orgy of all occurred at the 1815 Congress of Vienna that ended the Napoleonic Wars, where 8 to 10 million jelly doughnuts reportedly were served during Mardi Gras.
Americans would have none of these papist restrictions. After all, the Pilgrims left England so they could eat doughnuts 365 days a year. And apparently they did. They arrived with an obscure English specialty called a “dough nut” (because that’s what it looked like) and soon doughnuts were synonymous with New England. They were eaten for breakfast, lunch and supper, stuffed into travelers’ pockets, much as we might carry granola bars. America being a land of equal opportunity — at least when it comes to fried dough — the fritters of the French, German, Dutch and other immigrants gave the English version a run for their money, and the hybrids of all these fritter cultures eventually resulted in the doughnut promised land dreamed of by generations of the huddled masses on Europe’s teeming shore.
Here is a short view of current variations of this sweet, deep-fried treat.
Main photo: If indulgence is good, overindulgence is better. Or at least that’s the message at Portland’s Voodoo Doughnuts. Credit: Copyright 2015 Voodoo Doughnuts