Live Q&A: Doughnuts with Author Paul Mullins : Soapbox Live Q&A: The History of the Doughnut with Paul Mullins

Live Q&A: Doughnuts with Author Paul Mullins

Listen to Liane Hansen's WEB only interview with author Paul Mullins

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Listen to Liane Hansen's WEB only interview with author Paul Mullins

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">

Davar Iran Ardalan Senior Producer

Let's try this! Beginning at 8:00 a.m. ET on Sunday, August 31, the author of a new book on the history of the donut will be at his computer ready to respond to your questions and comments right here on Soapbox. His name is Paul Mullins, and he is the author of "Glazed America: A History of the Doughnut." Mullins is an anthropologist at Indiana University - Purdue University, Indianapolis. Make sure you click above and listen to Liane Hansen's web-only interview with Mullins and post your question or comment below and we will consider posing it to Paul Mullins. We will then post the question as well as the answer right here! Finally note that some of the first questions posted below come from the questions you asked earlier - Paul Mullins is answering them LIVE this morning.

8:00 a.m. First question from Rob Rynski: I was visiting Santa Cruz Boardwalk this weekend and saw the deep fried Twinkie stand - a fairly common sight these days on the Funway. No I did not eat one. But, I immediately thought: "This is just a cream filled doughnut." Would a deep fried Twinkie qualify as a doughnut?

PAUL MULLINS: The answer here depends on how we actually define doughnuts. If at its heart a doughnut is fried flour, then plenty of chefs over millennia have made doughnuts, albeit not in the familiar torus shaped form we associate with doughnuts. Some baker or strict doughnut fan certainly will correct us based on the flour and ingredients in a Twinkie as well as preparation, but perhaps we could broadly place deep-fried Twinkies in a spectrum of treat foods that includes doughnuts. We get deep-fried Twinkies here at Indiana's state fair, they're surprisingly edible.

Note: Click below to follow the live blog

8:10 a.m. Question from Sam: How long do the big US donut shops keep donuts on the shelves? I'm in Seoul, South Korea, and Dunkin and Krispie Kreme both seem to have terribly stale donuts, no matter when I get them.

PAUL MULLINS: Most doughnuts at the local grocery stay on the shelves as long as any other bakery goods, but for lots of us a doughnut has lost most of its charm once it cools off, and depending on preparation they can get a little dense by day's end. Some 19th century folks made doughnuts and took them on long trips because they were reputed to last indefinitely, but most of us associate bakery goods with freshness now, so no store doughnut is going to ever hold a candle to even the worst hot doughnut.

8:26 a.m. Question from Rebecca Bond: What has more pull-power than a simple doughnut? Can one doughnut start a small-town revolution?

PAUL MULLINS: I don't know if its the doughnut per se that has pull as much as a doughnut shop. My own sense is that many of the most popular doughnuts trade heavily on their shops and the social atmosphere of a particular shop has and the relationships a baker creates with local consumers. The right small-town doughnut joint can become an institution and be at the heart of local identity if it builds itself correctly, and there are doughnut places (and lots of similar food venues) all over rural America and big cities alike.

8:44 a.m. Question from Eric Solomon: Someone once told me it takes a week for a doughnut to be cleaned out of your system. Is this true?

PAUL MULLINS: Yikes. I am not appropriately trained to define "cleaned out"! My guess is this is a mechanism doughnut detractors wield to perhaps over-emphasize the impact of doughnut consumption when a more measured position would probably advocate some reasonable restraint instead of suggesting they're embedded in us for the week if not longer. I don't think that most of us respond all that well to such counsel.

8:50 a.m. Question from Diana Gale: How did the idea that police frequent donut shops get started?

PAUL MULLINS: The most common argument is that cops and doughnut makers share odd night-time hours, with bakeries typically needing to open in the middle of the night to bake the day's wares and crime never taking time off; many doughnut shops simply stay open around the clock if they don't open at the earliest dawn hours, so the police often started to frequent doughnut shops since there were few other options for late-night breaks (and doughnut shops normally have strong coffee alongside the inexpensive and filling snack). Some doughnut shops even today encourage officers to spend their breaks in a shop (though virtually no police force allows officers to take free doughnuts, and some forces have even drawn codes against officers consuming doughnuts on duty because of caricatures and the health effects of doughnut consumption). Doughnut shops reputedly have an extraordinarily low rate of burglaries, though this is a little hard to verify.

9:00 a.m. Question from Gabrielle: Do do(ugh)nuts vary by region, like, say, pizza or hot dogs? If so, what are the hallmarks of a New York donut? Are these regional variances being lost to national chains (dunkin d)?

PAUL MULLINS: Doughnuts were regionalized in the 19th century, with local doughnut recipes differing based mostly on the sorts of local flour and other ingredients available to doughnut makers; one 1877 Ohio cookbook advocated using "clarified meat drippings" in place of lard, and one Kentucky recipe even used whiskey. Since New Yorkers can claim a Dutch heritage in which the doughnut's earliest New World variants are firmly entrenched, it could reasonably be argued that some New York doughnut recipes still owe something to the heritage, but it is a little hard for me to see today. Much of that regionalization was gradually eroded by mechanization and then chain standardization that picked up steam from 1920 into the 1940s. Krispy Kreme stakes a claim to a Southern heritage and a fondness for especially sweet doughnuts, and Dunkin says much the same about their products and northern roots, but chain doughnuts are quite standardized, and given the sorts of mass-marketed flours made by even local doughnut producers the regionalization of doughnuts is certainly much less marked than it was even in 1920.

9:06 a.m. Question from James: I think some of the most unique and original doughnuts come from the Doughnut Plant in NYC. I was in Japan and saw a Doughnut Plant there, but why aren't there more in NY or the US?

PAUL MULLINS: James, the Doughnut Plant in Japan is part of the chain based in New York, and the Grand Street is I believe their only American store. Doughnut Plant is part of a new wave of doughnut makers who stress creativity, novel ingredients, and an exceptional product that breaks from the stereotype of doughnuts as oil-laden rings. Its an idea that likely would work outside New York City, so your guess is as good as mine to how they're thinking through their expansion and why they targeted Japan as opposed to other American markets.

9:16 a.m. Question from Ed Rock: On doughnut shops, locally the individual shops have disappeared over the last 20 years and convenience stores have started doughnut bakeries inside the shop. A fresh donut is important, but so is the social scene where you eat it. I don't like this development and think it weakens society--is this wide-spread?

PAUL MULLINS: Doughnut chains will argue--not without some cause--that their shops can still be meaningful social spaces in the same way as a local owner-operator bakery. I agree that one of the most magnetic dimensions of doughnut consumption is doughnut shops themselves, and those producers who attempted to expand their profits by selling their products in the local grocery have not met with all that much success. Obviously to some extent this is happening in food marketing outside doughnuts, but my own feeling is that the sway of a monolithic chain like McDonalds is radically different in scale if not effect over the largest doughnut chains, led by Dunkin'. I still think there is a broad landscape of local doughnut makers that value and understand the consumption environment of their shops and the relationships they have with community consumers. Nevertheless, I agree with your point that standardization in these consumer venues--every Dunkin' looks pretty much the same, staff behave the same, and the food is utterly uniform and does not change without corporate decision-makers--does radically diminish our experience. Some people may like that profound predictability of eating in a chain, but obviously many of us do not.

9:20 a.m. Question from Larry: What interesting variations on the doughnut theme have you found in other cultures?

PAUL MULLINS: I think the most interesting thing is less the myriad variations than simply the fact that every cuisine has fried flour in some form. The sweet fried flours did not begin to be produced until the Crusaders introduced sugar to Europeans. There are a ton of interesting and Latin American fried foods today that are cousins to the American doughnut, including some very tasty Brazilian pastry puffs, and they're worth seeking out if you can find them.

Note from Davar - Senior Producer: Great questions!!! Paul you're doing a great job - thanks!

9:27 a.m. Question from Liz: Yesterday my partner woke up and said she wanted doughnuts for breakfast. I looked on line to see if there was any place that sold fresh doughnuts. In Philadelphia, PA where I live there is a chain called Fresh Donuts. I called one Fresh Donuts and they didn't even know what I meant! I couldn't find any real freshly made doughnuts. Krispy Kremes is gone -- there doughnuts were good hot and much too heavy when cooled off. Any suggestions?

PAUL MULLINS: Liz, I don't know the doughnut landscape in Philadelphia, but in many cities doughnut makers faced with stiff rents typically need to sell more than doughnuts to make a reasonable profit, so increasingly more independent doughnut shops are really diversified bakeries. Doughnut shops are relatively cheap to set up (at least by business standards) but selling doughnuts alone requires a really predictable and steady consumer base. The chains and even some local bakers have turned to retail sales to try to expand their profits, but many face your feeling that a cold doughnut is not a very special food.

9:36 a.m. Question from Karen: Hello...Jelly donuts and Chanukah are linked together for me...I was wondering the history of this?

PAUL MULLINS: My understanding (and please feel free to correct or clarify this) is that sufganiyot commemorates the miracle of the oil following the defeat of the Greeks, when a single day's oil was needed to kindle the Temple Menorah and it miraculously lasted eight days. Hanukkah foods like jelly doughnuts (sufganiyah) and potato latkes fried in oil commemorate that event.

9:46 a.m. Question from Mark: Paul, did your interest in doughnuts start where you grew up or did it wait until your college days? Having been born in Winston-Salem (NC) I can say that doughnuts were BBQ, a staple?

PAUL MULLINS: Mark, I grew up in Krispy Kreme country (Richmond, Virginia) and there weren't many doughnut shops around, so I think I found them to be distinctive if not special places in a way that burger chains and even ubiquitous Southern BBQ places were not. What actually attracted me to the subject as research was that people had such strongly drawn sentiments about doughnuts and their local shops/favored chain and most people had strong nostalgia and deeply held feelings about their doughnut consumption experiences that are not common to most mass-consumed foods. It just helped a lot that I like doughnuts!

10:15 a.m. Question from Weekend Edition's own Liane Hansen: Paul, have you heard of the Krispy Kreme Bacon Cheeseburger?

PAUL MULLINS: My sense is that this dish is a clever comment on how doughnut consumption often willingly breaks with body disciplines, but in this case it wraps every possible vice into a single dish: a fried doughnut, a slab of red meat, fried pork, and potentially some calorie-rich condiments all slathered onto one item. It probably would be worth the story later on to eat one with a public audience to testify to your supreme vice. Its not clear if that story would be sufficiently funny to be worth the potential unpleasantness after eating it.

10:25 a.m. Question from Fred (posted on earlier blog): Are donuts consumed more on a regional basis? It seems While in Boston there was a donut shop on every corner while here in California they are few and far between. Is there some connection between climate and consumption?

PAUL MULLINS: Some Canadians swear there is a link between environment and doughnut consumption, suggesting that doughnuts are a cold weather food especially well adapted to Canadian life, but California has among the highest per capita density of doughnut shops of anywhere on the planet (and this per capita doughnut shop issue is always disputed between places like Hamilton, Ontario, Boston, and LA, the three places that most often lay claim to being the biggest doughnut markets in the world). There is not very good reason to connect environment to doughnuts, or for that matter to many foods since we can be socialized to eat a vast range of foods in almost any environmental context. I think the bigger influence is often car commuting patterns, since doughnut marketers often do especially well in contexts like southern California that are home to numerous car commuters. Yet even some places that are not so wedded to the car make friendly homes to doughnut markets, and some car commuting communities don't always work out for doughnut sellers, so there's not any single factor that determines the success of doughnut shops. That being said, it cannot hurt if a community believes their environmental setting is ideal for the doughnut and fits within a broader sense of place and self, since we do place both environment and foods at the heart of our self-perceived community identities.

10:50 a.m. Question from Jack Pollard (posted on earlier blog): "...As an employee of KK for 10 years until 1980 and a franchaisee from 80-87 when the company had approximately 50 KK outlets, I have seen KK grow very rapidly and fall very rapidly (based on my small amount of stock) The rapid growth looked great 8 years ago but rapid growth requires potential franchaisees with access to big money and these people are not likely to spend any time working in the donut shop. The big money people were probably required to purchase an entire territory and open X number of shops, and in some cases more than the territory could support profitably...."

PAUL MULLINS: Every chain preaches its exclusivity, and all of the major food chains have programs in place to monitor the quality of the product and the way every store impacts broader brand identity. Krispy Kreme was hurt first by a buyout in 1982 in which franchisees purchased the chain back (it had been purchased after founder Vernon Rudolph's death by Beatrice Foods); they subsequently expanded the number of outlets in the mid-1990s and began selling in groceries and convenience stores, which in some minds diluted the brand by taking away the "magic" of a store visit; and they then had internal management problems that eventually led to changes in the highest levels of the chain. Dunkin' has expanded rapidly in some communities using the formula Jack views warily, having a single franchisee or a few folks open a series of stores in a single community, which turns over each store to managers and staff who may have less commitment to the chain and store than a single owner-operator, and the chains are always trying to balance their desire to manage chain expansion and brand symbolism with the belief that they can always find some way to increase profit.

11:18 a.m. Question from Kate: In parts of New England, sprinkles are called "jimmies." What is the origin of this term?

PAUL MULLINS: In my experience the terms sprinkles and jimmies are relatively interchangeable by consumers (manufacturers tend to be more specific in distinguishing between ingredients), though sometimes rainbow jimmies are the multi-colored version and the single chocolate version are just jimmies. In the 1890s linguists were already developing detailed etymologies the range of fried foods in New England, which extended well beyond just crullers and doughnuts, so New Englanders have an especially rich heritage of regionalizing the terms used for their foods and ingredients. I don't see "jimmies" in the Oxford English Dictionary yet (!), so we'll have to wait for somebody to provide a conclusive origin for the term.

11:25 a.m. Question from John: Do you object to the spelling of doughnut as donut?

PAUL MULLINS: John, yes this is a sticky question, but for the purposes of standardization I simply settled on doughnuts, largely because this was the spelling most commonly embraced in the 19th century, becoming a single word in a handful of cookbooks in the 1830s and becoming more commonplace by mid-century. The donut spelling does not appear until the 20th century, and the reasons for its emergence are not completely clear to me. It is the most common spelling on the vast number of roadside neon signs that went up across the country in the 1950s, and the prevailing sentiment seems to be that this was because it occupies fewer letters and allows for larger letters on a sign, easier reading while in a car, and cheaper production.

11:28 a.m. Paul Mullins reacting to a posting from Judy Dunn. Here is Judy's posting: My doughnut memory goes back to the 1960's, as a little girl, visiting my grandparents in Queens, NY. Sometimes, on Sunday morning, after attending church, we would stop at a bakery and get a box of donuts. On a few special occasions, I was able to go along on the trip to the bakery. It was a crowded and busy space. I now stand over 6' tall, but I can still remember that sense of looking up, and standing on my toes to try and see the donuts.
Things were happening at such a rapid speed. Orders being shouted over the counter, money being exchanged. I was entranced by the white boxes that the donuts were put inside. They were quickly locked together by the person behind the counter. An assortment of donuts were piled into the box. Jelly donuts, powdered sugar, plain, cruellers, and cream filled. And then a string was rapidly wrapped around the box and tied. It made a perfect handle to carry the treasures home. And, it kept us from breaking into the box until we were back at my grandparents house. The jelly donuts were like no other I had experienced. They were slightly warm. The sugar granules added a little gritty texture as I bit into the donut. Then there was the thin layer of crust on the outside of the donut, that easily gave way to the cake of donut, from which the jelly would spill out. Sweet, warm, delicious. I have never had jelly donuts as wonderful as those donuts I had as a child, visiting my grandparents. Thank you for letting me remember a precious moment from my childhood!

PAUL MULLINS REFLECTION: Judy's story is typical of doughnut stories in a series of ways, because the story is a memory of how a food like doughnuts became a part of specific social contexts like church, and the doughnut shop itself is "special" in terms of both when we frequent the shop (i.e., after church, little league games, with grandparents, etc) and in terms of its distinctive environment; Judy remembers all the finest material details of the shop and all the personal relationships associated with doughnuts, and that's common for our most prized foodways settings and really common for doughnut consumers. Thanks.

11:32 a.m. Question from Jim: What's the truth about donuts being invented by two sisters who fed Pony Express riders on the run so the riders could hold on to them better?

PAUL MULLINS: I don't know this particular tale, but several doughnut origination myths conclude that the reason for the torus shape with a hole in the center was for ease of handling the doughnut; e.g., one story is that the doughnut's inventor was a ship's captain who place doughnuts on the wheel, and many drivers agree that the doughnut's form allows for multi-tasking, so the Pony Express story seems to fit in that genre of stories.

12:33 p.m. Paul Mullins reacting to a posting from Barb. Here is Barb's posting: Somehow my future husband jokingly got the idea that a good test of [my] cooking ability would be doughnuts, so the Thanksgiving week before he left for overseas military duty, I got out my mom's cookbook and deep fryer and made them for him. Actually, they were "fried cakes." After the combination of my mom's Thanksgiving feast and those doughnuts, he could barely get his uniform belt buckled. I've never made doughnuts since and we've been married 43 years, but we still count them are one of my memorable culinary achievements.

PAUL MULLINS REFLECTION: Like Barb, few chefs regardless of their skill make doughnuts at home very often, because it is a bit of a mess with all the oil and flour, and like lots of baking and pastry-production it takes real decision-making. When doughnut machines were introduced that fried large quantities of doughnuts and eventually even formed them without
human intervention, this made doughnut production increasingly attractive to bakers. Since lots of other chefs had Barb's experience--they were good, sure, but it was probably a little challenging and a kitchen mess, especially alongside turkey and Thanksgiving fixings--the mass marketing of doughnuts was quickly successful and has never been seriously challenged by home production. In contrast, we can make a hamburger at home, and even a marginal chef can make a pretty delicious hamburger, but a cheap, quick, and delicious homemade doughnut that doesn't turn your kitchen into a disaster of flour and grease is much more challenging.

1:19 p.m. Question from Chrystine Lee: I have noticed that there are a lot of stores labeled "chinese food and donuts". I find the thought somewhat repulsive. Where did this unlikely combination come from? Is this a nationwide thing?

PAUL MULLINS: For most Americans this is indeed a distinctive combination, though plenty of our foodways must appear plenty strange as well, so to some extent it simply matters what we're socialized to see as acceptable. This combination is vastly more commonplace on the West Coast and not often heard of at all in the East, and this probably reflects the density of both doughnut shops and Chinese-style restaurants on the West Coast. Some merchants serving Asian foods made the decision to expand lunch and dinner service to the whole day and simply added a relatively inexpensive food, and many ambitious merchants are not at all deterred by the assumption that their enterprises should focus on one particular service, food, or class of goods, and some Bay area shops sell doughnuts, over-the-counter medications, Chinese food, and whatever else they can sell profitably in their neighborhood.

1:21 p.m. Question from Cosmo: How do you consider the Buttermilk Bar? We call it "the doughnut that is not a doughnut", and it's our favorite.

PAUL MULLINS: I've never actually had a buttermilk bar; their fans swear by the discernible buttermilk flavor, but my taste buds cannot quite imagine this flavor and scent. They seem to be a little more common in the West, but I may simply be missing all the other regional versions.

2:00 p.m. Question from Cosmo: How do you consider the Buttermilk Bar? We call it "the doughnut that is not a doughnut", and it's our favorite.

PAUL MULLINS: I''ve never actually had a buttermilk bar; their fans swear by the discernible buttermilk flavor, but my taste buds cannot quite imagine this flavor and scent. They seem to be a little more common in the West, but I may simply be missing all the other regional versions.

2:01 p.m. Question from Garth Johnson: I lived in Orange County for a while where it seemed there was a doughnut shop on every corner. The donuts all seemed the same, regardless of the shop. Do they all use the same pre-made dough?

PAUL MULLINS: Doughnut shops and bakers tend to closely guard the secret of precisely what flour they use and where they procure that flour, since even today the difference in various flours can be quite significant, and it was once even more magnified. Chains dispense pre-mixed flours that are simply dumped into machines and made through a very tightly controlled and predictable process, and many independent bakeries purchase these premixed flours. Adolph Levitt's Doughnut Corporation of America was perhaps the most influential of the early doughnut manufacturers who produced consistent premixed flours and sold doughnut machines to his Mayflower Doughnuts franchisees, but many of the craft bakeries now have local suppliers who provide a distinctive flour that tastes quite unlike the ready-prepared flours.

Note from Davar Iran Ardalan, Senior Producer: A big round of applause to Author Paul Mullins for spending his morning and early afternoon with us here on Soapbox. And kudos to all of YOU for your great questions! We will try this format with other authors in the future. Have a great Labor Day Weekend!!!