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Friday, June 06, 2008

National Donut Day

The first Friday in June is national donut (or doughnut) day in the United States. Friday is probably a good day to celebrate donuts since it tends to be a slower and more casual day at many businesses with employees gearing down and getting ready for the weekend and therefore more likely to bring in donuts for the office to celebrate the end of the work week.

National Donut Day does not appear to be any sort of official holiday in the sense that the President, a Governor or even a Mayor have issued an official proclamation designating the day as some sort of official holiday. Ironically, despite the fact that donuts are big business, the holiday did not originate with any donut companies so it is not a commercial holiday designed to get people to eat more donuts (as if people need to be encouraged to eat donuts).

While the motive in creating this holiday was not profits or the celebration of some great event in the nation's history the day does have its roots in money and American History. The fact is that National Donut Day was first proclaimed in 1938 by the Salvation Army in Chicago. Their motives were two fold. First, as a ploy to raise money to help in their feeding of the poor during the Great Depression; and, second to commemorate and honor the Salvation Army "Lassies", young women who volunteered to go to France with the Salvation Army during World War I to prepare and serve donuts to the American soldiers fighting in the trenches of France.

World War I was America's first major overseas war (the Spanish American War was fought overseas but it was just a small, quick war and nowhere near the scale of World War I) and, along with the thousands of men who went over to fight, were thousands of women volunteers with organizations like the Salvation Army and Red Cross who went to France as nurses, caring for the sick and wounded, or canteen workers, many of whom risked their lives near the front lines, operating rest stations where soldiers could take a break from the war and relax with a cup of coffee and a donut.

Donuts have a long history. Basically, what we know as donuts originated in Germany and Holland where bakers, rather than discarding the small scraps of dough left over from making bread, would gather up the scraps and deep fry them in oil then roll them in fried cakes or olie-koecken. The Dutch went a step further by molding the dough into decorative shapes before deep frying them and then rolled them in sugar when they finished cooking. The Dutch brought this practice with them to their colony of New Amsterdam (now New York) in the New World and some say that this is how donuts were introduced into the U.S. Others claim that the Puritans, who first fled from England to Holland before deciding to move to the New World where they settled in what is now New England, learned the custom of making olie-koecken and brought it with them to the New World. Probably both have some truth to them.

Today donuts can be either the traditional circle with a hole in the middle or small little somewhat oval shaped cakes with a cream or fruit filling in the center. While the small somewhat oval cake shape is probably the original shape there is problem with these in that, when cooking, the outer parts cook sooner and the center remains uncooked and tends to collapse as a result when cooking.

 There appears to have been two solutions to this. One was to cut out the center, thereby creating the common round donut with the hole in the center, or inject cream or a fruit filling in the center to support it during cooking. The version with the hole in the center is the more common traditional donut although, now days the other is just as common thanks to our desire for variety. However, some apparently consider the cream or fruit filled donuts to be different enough to warrant a separate holiday and that, somewhat lesser known and much newer holiday is observed on September 14th and is known as National Cream Filled Donut Day.

Finally, there is the question of the origin of the name, which is disputed. There are a number of accounts with one being that the Dutch in shaping the donuts often chose a knot shape giving rise to the name dough knots which evolved into donuts by our time. Another has it that the New York author Washington Irving first referred to them as doughnuts in his History of New York published in 1809. Although WikiPedia also cites a 1808 short story that refers to "fire-cakes and dough-nuts" speculating that the dough-nuts referred to were actually the donut holes that had been cut out and cooked separately. The version I like is one that an English teacher friend told me and that is that they were originally referred to in England as dough naughts meaning zeros (naught is an old term for zero) made out of dough. That makes as much sense as any of the other explanations.

Regardless of the origins of the name, I am perfectly to celebrate every day as National Donut Day by eating a donut. Unfortunately, my waistline doesn't agree but I can console myself with the thought that, at least on the first Friday in June and on September 14th I should get into the spirit of the holiday by having a donut with my mourning coffee.

Traditional round donuts on sale in a grocery store
 Now, if they would just carve out one more day of the year to celebrate the chocolate covered donut...

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