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Doughnut Day


If there’s something in life more pleasurable than a doughnut, I’d like to hear about it. One deep-fat-fried mouthful is usually enough to convince me of the design argument for the existence of a Supreme Being.

I mention this because I discovered recently that the Salvation Army celebrates its annual “Donut Day” May 21 and May 22. (Like the Calvinists many of them are, Salvation Army folks prefer the more austere spelling of the word -- but I’ll go for baroque and use the full, florid, Counter-Reformation orthography: doughnut). By the way, it is just “Doughnut Day,” singular, even though the event stretches over 48 hours, a point I clarified by calling the Salvation Army here in Kansas City and being connected to its -- honest to God -- “doughnut department.”

If ever there was a holiday I could get behind, Doughnut Day is it. As Homer Simpson said, “Doughnuts have made me the man I am today.”

It turns out that doughnuts are a key part of Salvation Army history. Women from the Salvation Army delivered millions of doughnuts to American troops during World War I, sometimes scampering into trenches on the front lines to pass out the goodies.

Risking one’s life for a doughnut ranks near the top of my scale of personal heroism, and I don’t want to take any of the luster off these women’s sacrifices. Frankly, however, I suspect the doughnuts had propaganda value, too -- a way of saying, “The French were fools to resist the Kaiser’s strudel with nothing but those wimpish croissants. Let’s show ’em what American snack treats are all about!”

Historians say World War I American soldiers didn’t get the nickname “doughboys” this way -- apparently the term goes back to the Civil War, when cavalry officers made fun of infantrymen who used flour to polish their boots. But from now on I’ll down a long john or two every Armistice Day anyway, in memory of our boys “over there.”

If truth be told, I’ve always been a bit skeptical of the Salvation Army -- something about “salvation” and “army” in the same sentence jars, like “holy war.” But I have to hand it to them on the doughnut thing -- I wonder if they’re parachuting into Kosovo right now with bearclaws and apple fritters?

In honor of Doughnut Day, I decided to do a little checking into the history and theological significance of doughnuts.

They were introduced into the New World in the form of Dutch “olykoeks” -- or “oily cakes.” In the 19th century, Elizabeth Gregory, a New England ship captain’s mother, whipped up a batch with walnuts in the middle, and in a masterstroke of literalism called them “dough nuts.” (I’m not making this up -- it’s from a Smithsonian exhibit on the doughnut).

Two versions exist of what happened next. One is that her son didn’t like nuts and pushed them out, leaving the familiar hole in the center. As an anti-nuttist myself, that’s the version of the story I favor. The other is that young Gregory punched a hole in the doughnut because he wanted to stack a few on his ship’s steering wheel. Either way, the modern form of the doughnut was born on that voyage.

Thanks to entrepreneurs such as Krispy Kreme and Dunkin, doughnuts have become a ubiquitous feature of American popular culture.

In terms of doughnut theology, you can find a good discussion on line at Allen Thompson’s “House of Doughnuts” Web site (www.teleport.com/~allent/donuts.html). A sample: “The importance of the doughnut in Judeo-Christian tradition is of course well-known, from the use of the bagel as a symbol for the doughnut in ceremonial observances, to the dietary restrictions of the Roman Catholic church, which required abstinence from the eating of meat on Friday, (since that day was reserved for the eating of doughnuts).”

My Catholic grade school teachers in the 1970s never mentioned that, but then the right wing of the church has been saying all along that religious education went to hell after Vatican II. Anyway, I’m proud to say that I’ve been keeping this particular observance for decades without even knowing about it, sort of like Karl Rahner’s anonymous Christian.

The medical and dieting communities are full of nattering nabobs of negativism when it comes to doughnuts. A recent editorial in the New England Journal of Medicine warned that one glazed doughnut carries, on average, a payload of over 300 calories. Yet I’m cheered by the fact that Krispy Kreme has rolled out a new machine capable of producing 800 dozen doughnuts an hour, which they wouldn’t do if people weren’t consuming them in record numbers. Clearly, many right-thinking Americans have concluded that the “get fit” crowd can kiss our collective grits.

The Salvation Army uses Donut Day as an excuse to stand outside malls asking for money. Though I admire their moxie, I’m going to use my spare cash to treat the NCR newsroom to a couple dozen from Lamar’s, the local doughnut mecca. I suggest that you mark the day in similar fashion. Consider it a very corporal work of mercy.

To quote Homer Simpson once more: “Oh, doughnut ... what can’t you do?”

John L. Allen Jr. is NCR opinion editor. He can be reached at jallen@natcath.org

National Catholic Reporter, May 21, 1999