Delicious doughnuts pattern on a mint background. Top view. Flat lay

The Doughnut—Extraordinary Ordinary Things

I once described the image of a typical young American child as holding a balloon in one hand and a melting ice cream cone in the other. Instead of a young child, the picture could also show (and probably more accurately) an adult holding a cup of coffee in one hand and a doughnut in the other.

Iconically American (like the French croissant), the doughnut today is known and appreciated around the world (also like the croissant). As with many iconic things, the doughnut is the subject of considerable controversy, not the least of which is: Should the correct spelling of the name be “doughnut” or “donut”?  More fundamentally, when is a doughnut truly a doughnut and when is it something else?

I have a very personal relationship with the doughnut. When I was a child growing up in Los Angeles, my parents owned a small snack-type restaurant where we served light meals, sandwiches, and an awful lot of coffee and doughnuts. We received freshly baked doughnuts daily from a local bakery in a variety of flavors (plain, sugared, glazed, sprinkled, chocolate, buttermilk, etc.). And they were all delicious. Recollections of these doughnuts (accompanied by milk, not coffee) are one of my most precious memories of childhood.

For this, and many less personal reasons, I believe the doughnut in all of its various manifestations justifiably deserves a place of honor on the list of what I like to call “extraordinary ordinary things.”

What Is a Donut?

Before going any further, in this blog doughnut will be written “donut” rather than “doughnut.”  I know this decision will make me a hero to some and a villain to others, but a choice had to be made. I am open to arguments about why it should be spelled doughnut. But don’t count on winning. Once you have made the painful decision of opting for one or the other, changing your mind seems to be just too daunting a task.

Like most things iconically American, the donut started life as an immigrant. Scholars who study such things coalesce around the idea that the ancestor of the donut came from Europe, and in particular the Netherlands and Belgium. When immigrants from these areas arrived in New Amsterdam (the original name of New York), they brought with them a taste and recipes for what were known as “olykoeken,” literally “oil cakes.” Although often flavored with other ingredients, olykoeken were essentially balls of dough cooked in vats of hot fat.

This ancestor of the donut is still very popular in the Netherlands and Belgium (and elsewhere in Europe), although the name varies from place to place. It is olykoekin the Netherlands but oliebollen (literally oil balls) or smouteballen (literally lard balls) in Flanders, the Dutch-speaking region of Belgium. In the German-speaking region of eastern Belgium, they are known as Schmalzkugeln (lard balls). In Wallonia, the French-speaking region of Belgium, the literal name is hidden under the more euphonious appellation croustillons (crispies).

But whatever they are called, these balls of fat-cooked dough would never be mistaken for donuts. So just what is a donut? And why is there so much controversy about what qualifies as a donut and what doesn’t?

In the first instance, it is important to recognize these questions are not trivial. Wikipedia has a page listing and picturing hundreds of foods made from fried dough. Curiously, the page does not show the donut. Why? Because as noted in the introduction, the encyclopedia reserves a special page for the donut all by itself, showing how donuts are prepared and named all over the world. This is supplemented by a connected page showing the location of donut shops, i.e. individual shops and chains that specialize in making donuts.

But we are still left with the fundamental question: What is a donut?

If you ask most people (at least in the United States), they will probably respond something like, “It’s a round pastry with a hole in the middle.” That’s certainly what the Merriam-Webster Dictionary says: “A small usually ring-shaped piece of sweet fried dough.” The  Cambridge Dictionary defines a donut as: “A small, circular cake, fried in hot fat, either with a hole in the middle or filled with jam.” The Collins Dictionary defines a donut as: “A small cake of sweetened dough, often ring-shaped or spherical with a jam or cream filling, cooked in hot fat.”  

Herein lies the controversy. Can a donut really be not round and lacking a hole?

My first reaction to reading the Collins definition was any pastry that is not round—and certainly without a hole—simply isn’t a donut. However, when my wrath cooled, I realized I had been accepting the Collins definition for decades without ever realizing it.

As a young adult in the 1960s, I had the habit of a couple of times a week leaving my apartment early in the morning, buying a newspaper, then walking to a nearby coffee shop for breakfast, which regularly consisted of coffee and a buttermilk donut—often two. Buttermilks were my favorite kind of donut. However, when I reflected on the matter, I suddenly realized these delightful bits of pastry were neither round nor did they have a hole. They were called buttermilk donuts, and that’s what I ordered.

But let’s go back to Wikipedia. Many of the donuts shown are neither round nor do they have a hole. Yet they are still considered to be donuts. Perhaps the most famous of these “deviant” donuts is the German Berliner Pfannkuchen. Often called simply a Berliner, this ball-shaped pastry is made from sweet yeast dough fried in fat or oil, with a marmalade or jam filling, and usually sprinkled on top with powdered sugar.

The Berliner is responsible for what has come to be considered a legendary political gaffe.

In one of the most noted speeches of the Cold War, on June 26, 1963, in West Berlin, President John F. Kennedy declared to the citizens of the divided city, “Ich bin ein Berliner.” Delivered in German, the declaration was to assure the citizens of Berlin, which had been divided by a wall erected by the Soviet Union two years before, that he was deeply and personally on their side.

Unfortunately, he was immediately accused of making a schoolboy error, which probably should have been caught by his advisors and speechwriters, but wasn’t. In German, to say what he thought he was saying, he should have said “Ich bin Berliner.” By using the indefinite article ein, what he was actually saying was equivocal. It could have meant “I am a Berliner” as he intended, but it could also have meant “I am a Berlin donut.”  German linguists say that technically both versions of the statement, with or without ein, are grammatically correct. However, the most common way to say it would be without.

This equivocal grammatical structure is not unique to German. Living in Brussels, I speak French, which also dispenses with the indefinite article when referring to nationalities, professions, and on other occasions. For example, I would say “Je suis Américain,” not “Je suis un Américan,” Likewise, I would say “Je suis écrivain,” not “Je suis un écrivain”  to say I am a writer. I don’t know whether it would be unpardonably incorrect to use the indefinite article un in French in such situations. However, I don’t recall ever hearing it said that way.

How Did the Donut Get Its Name and Its Hole?

Among donut historians, there seems to be a broad consensus as to how the donut (doughnut) got its name. And yes, it did have something to do with nuts.

In the mid-19th century, a certain Elizabeth Gregory, the mother of New England ship captain Hanson Gregory, began making deep-fried dough flavored with her son’s spices and lemon rind for him and his crew to take along with them on long voyages. It was believed ] these long-lasting pastries, along with being a tasty treat for the hardworking sailor, might also help prevent scurvy. When she discovered her pastries did not always cook all the way through, she put hazelnuts in the center so that the sailors would not find themselves bitting into soggy dough. You can guess the rest. Dough + nuts became “doughnut,” which donut histories generally agree is probably the true story.

The origin of the hole is somewhat more controversial. Some donut historians say Mrs. Gregory’s sea captain son is said to have decided to put a hole in the donut ostensibly to solve the soggy center problem and to make them easier to digest. Other historians attribute Captain Gregory’s invention of the donut hole to the need to keep both hands on the wheel in a storm. He simply used the hole to conveniently skewer the donut on a spoke of his ship’s wheel, ready to be quickly and conveniently removed and eaten whenever weather conditions allowed. Less sanguine donut historians contend that Captain Gregory’s real motivation was to save money. After all, putting air in the center rather than nuts would be quite a money saver. According to Captain Gregory, putting the hole in the center was simply a matter of using the top of a round tin pepper box to punch out the center.

How and why the donut got its hole, the fact remains that for many people it is iconic. A donut without a hole is simply not a donut.

The Donut Becomes an Icon

Although the donut had been known and appreciated for decades previous, its inexorable spread through the American consciousness probably really got going only in 1920. This was the year the Ring King Jr., the first donut-making machine, came into being. Previously, donuts had been made essentially by hand, meaning their availability was limited and their cost rather high. The machine also gave donut-making a touch of show business. The machines were usually placed in big, glass windows where potential customers could gather to see them being made.

As one observer fondly recalls, “And so generations of kids like me, and adults, too, have stood transfixed by the Willy Wonka-like scene behind the glass of donut shops, learning in the process that the donut hole is built-in, not cut out. There before them, a circle of dough, shaped like a perfect smoke ring, and about the diameter of a baseball, dropped off into a vat of boiling oil, circulated, got turned over to brown on the other side, and emerged from the oil on a moving ramp, one by one like ducks in a row.”

In 1931, The New Yorker magazine couldn’t contain itself from waxing lyrical about the spectacle. “We can tell you a little about the donut-making place in Broadway . . . (where) donuts float dreamily through a grease canal in a glass-enclosed machine, walk dreamily up a moving ramp, and tumble dreamily into an outgoing basket.”

By the time of the 1934 World’s Fair in Chicago, the donut was already well on its way to becoming iconic. Posters proclaimed them “the food hit of the Century of Progress.”

But, of course, donuts did not delight everyone, especially the medical community. A single donut can contain as much as  300 calories, mainly because of its sugar and fat content. In general, famous chefs also deplore the donut as being below the dignity of their culinary art. However, David A. Taylor writing in Smithsonian Magazine over 20 years ago confidently proclaimed “. . . neither science nor culinary scorn nor outright scolding deters (donut) devotees.”

The National Museum of American History in Washington D.C., part of the Smithsonian Institution, has an extensive collection of donut memorabilia. A description of the collection says that one of its prized possessions is an early donut-making machine. The machine that helped launch the donut’s conquest of the United States, and subsequently significant parts of the rest of the world. The collection description notes that the automatic donut-making machine was invented in 1920 by Adolph Levitt, a refugee from czarist Russia, who thus became a very rich man. “Rags to riches” stories, especially about persecuted refugees, are of course a very common theme in American history.

The Donut in Culture

Popular music

The donut has inspired or is mentioned in very few popular songs. The best known (and to many the only one known) has the rather unimaginative title “The Donut Song.” The most popular version is by famous folksinger Burl Ives; it’s almost his theme song. The lyrics are:

Well, I walked round the corner
and I walked round the block,
and I walked right into a bakery shop.

I picked up a donut
and I wiped off the grease,
and I handed the lady a 5 cent piece.

Well, she looked at the nickel
and she looked at me,
and she said 

"Hey mister, you can plainly see.
There's a hole in the nickel,
there's a hole right through."

Said I, "There's a hole in the donut too!
Thanks for the donut, good-bye!" 

Homeric donut

While the donut might justify the adjective “iconic,” you would be hardpressed to consider it ‘Homeric.” But it is. At least in the sense that one of the world’s more beloved and enduring cartoon characters simply couldn’t live without them. Who? Homer Simpson.

Homer Simpson and donuts are virtually synonymous  Even “The Simpsons Movie” (2007) had a big ole’ donut on its poster. But why this fixation for donuts? According to  Matt Groening, the cartoon’s creator.

“Homer originated with my goal to both amuse my real father, Homer, and just annoy him a little bit. My father was an athletic, creative, intelligent filmmaker, and writer, and the only thing he had in common with Homer was a love of donuts. And he never strangled me, but he got so mad sometimes, it felt like that could be the next move,” he added.

Pretty in pink: The Cambodian- Hollywood connection

In the U.S., especially in Southern California, fresh donuts sold by the dozen at local donut shops are typically packaged in generic pink boxes. This phenomenon can be attributed to Ted Ngoy and Ning Yen, refugees of the Cambodian genocide (1975–79), who transformed the local donut shop industry. They proved so adept at the business and in training fellow refugees to follow suit that these local donut shops soon dominated native franchises. Initially desiring boxes of a lucky color rather than the standard white, Ngoy and Yen settled on a cheaper, leftover pink stock. Owing to the success of their business, the color soon became a recognizable standard.

Due to the locality of Hollywood, the pink boxes frequently appeared as film and television props and were thus transmitted into popular culture. However, long before this, Hollywood was already spreading the gospel of the donut. For example, in the 1934 film “It Happened One Night,” Clark Gable is shown teaching co-star Claudette Colbert the fine art of donut dunking. “Don’t let it soak so long. It’s all a matter of timing . . . Dunking is an art. I ought to write a book about it.”

It’s probably just a coincidence, but one of the leading donut shop chains in the U.S. is called Dunkin’ Donuts, founded in Quincy, Massachusetts, in 1950. It recently changed its name to simply Dunkin’ to better reflect the wide range of other foods the company sells. But its donut origin is still clearly evident.

Perhaps the first appearance of a donut to the mass public was in a 1914 silent film “Dough & Dynamite” in which Charlie Chaplin is seen making donuts by wrapping dough around his wrist.  In this silent short from Keystone Studios (known for films about an incompetent American police force). Buster Keaton, another silent film legend, in the U.S. carried the nickname “The Great Stone Face.” However, in France, he was given the nickname “Malec.” Malec has no direct translation into English, but it can be approximated by “blank page” or “hole of a donut,” which gave rise to Keaton’s less know (and less flattering) second nickname “The Donut Hole.”

Donut emoji

The highest accolade Hollywood can bestow is the Oscar. But in today’s internet-connected world, how can this even begin to compare with being recognized by an emoji? An Oscar is ephemeral; it is awarded to different people from year to year. An emoji is essentially eternal; it is what it is and likely never to change. Moreover, an emoji is recognized and used by millions (billions?) of people around the world.

The donut emoji can symbolize a variety of meanings depending on the context in which it is used, but in general, it means an actual donut, dessert, or hunger. It has the distinction of being included in the Unicode Consortium’s first group of recognized emojis in 2010 (how could it not have been?). The Unicode Consortium, headquartered in Mount View, CA, is a non-profit corporation devoted to developing, maintaining, and promoting software internationalization standards and data.

Donut economics

Donut economics is described as “a visual framework for sustainable development, shaped like a donut or lifebelt, combining the concept of planetary boundaries with the complementary concept of social boundaries.” The name derives from the shape of the diagram, i.e. a disc with a hole in the middle. The hole represents the proportion of people who lack access to the essentials of a good life, e.g. education, equity, healthcare, etc. The crust represents the ecological ceilings (planetary boundaries on which life depends and the limits to which they can go.

The diagram was developed by University of Oxford economist Kate Raworth in her 2012 “A Safe and Just Space for Humanity” and further developed in her 2017 book “Doughnut Economics: Seven Ways to Think  like a 21st Century Economists.”

National Donut Day

National Donut Day is annually celebrated in the USA on the first Friday of June. It is in fact the successor of the Donut Day created by the Salvation Army in 1938 to honor about 250 female members of the organization who became famous for serving donuts to recuperating wounded soldiers during the First World War.

Why donuts?

Because of the difficulty of providing freshly baked goods from huts established in abandoned buildings near the front lines, Ensign Margaret Sheldon and Adjutant Helen Purviance, two Salvation Army volunteers came up with the idea of providing donuts.  As Ensign Margaret Sheldon once wrote about the project, “Today I made 22 pies, 300 donuts, and 700 cups of coffee.” Known but still not widely distributed at the time (Krispy Kreme was still two decades away), the donuts were an instant hit. The brave volunteers who went to France to bake and serve donuts became known by the servicemen as “Donut Lassies.”

During the Second World War, the Red Cross Volunteers also sent volunteers abroad to distribute donuts to U.S. service personnel. And like their Salvation Army sisters, they became known as Donut Dollies.

Last year, Donut Day became a popular term in Australia. It is used as the number zero, i.e. any day free of new coronavirus cases. It stems from the date October 26, 2020. On this date, a Melbourne supermarket sold out of all its donuts, taken to be a symbol of hope and recovery during a long period of lockdown.


Curiously, the donut has generated only one idiomatic expression of any note: “Dollars to donuts.” It is usually used in the form of a bet :

  • “I bet you dollars to donuts that our team will win.”
  • “It’s dollars to donuts that she won’t get the promotion..”

“Dollars to donuts” is only one of several other expressions for betting money against something of considerably lesser value, e.g. “dollars to buttons,” “dollars to cobwebs, “dollars to dumplings,” etc. Originated in the 19th century, “dollars to donuts” is still the most popular of these idiomatic expressions; however, today it is monetarily outmoded. When it was coined 150 years ago, a donut cost only about 5 cents, so the person proposing the bet was giving odds of 20 to 1. At today’s prices, the best one can hope for is to break even.


Like most obsessions, the donut has given rise to numerous insightful (and often humous) quotations. Here are a few of my favorites.

“I’m not going to work in a place where I can’t eat donuts.”—Kristen Ashley

“It’s one thing, holding open the door for someone at a grocery store, or the library, or just about anyplace else. But the donut shop is a different thing altogether. This is a get-in-and-out-as-fast-as-you-can operation. There’s no room for courtesy or chivalry here.”—Linwood Barclay

“If you stop eating donuts you will live three years longer. It’s just three more years that you want a donut.”—Lewis Black

“The reality of life is: If you have a bagel shop and everybody is pouring into the donut shop across the street, if you want to stay in business, you start selling donuts.”—John C. Bogle

“If I had all the money in the world, I’d still make movies. But I’d want them to pay me in donuts.”—Bruce Campbell

“Embrace the grease, if any, and look fresh and human. I like to look like a glazed donut.”—Paloma Elsesser

“Sure, beauty has the power to excite men. But so does a box of donuts.”—Susan Jane Gilman

“Donuts. Is there anything they can’t do?”—Matt Groening

“It takes courage, of course, to step out of the fray. As it takes courage to do anything that’s necessary, whether tending to a loved one on her deathbed. Or turning away from that sugarcoated donut.”—Pico Iyer

“With a donut in each hand, anything is possible.”—Jameela Jamil

“I still take my own lunches to work. That way I can control what I’m eating, as opposed to another donut.”—Marianne Jean-Baptiste

“This is a donut. It is very sweet, and very good. But if you’ve never tasted a donut, you wouldn’t really know how sweet and how good a donut is . . . meditation is like that. Transcendental Meditation gives an experience much sweeter than the sweetness of this donut.”—David Lynch

“An actor without a playwright is like a hole without a donut.”—George Jean Nathan

“Claiming that someone’s marriage is against your religion is like being angry at someone for eating a donut because you’re on a diet.”—Seth Rogen

“President Obama is closing the prescription drug donut hole.”—Debbie Wasserman Schultz

“She was carrying two coffees and a donut bag, and right then and there, he fell in love.”—Animal Magnetism”—Jill Shalvis

“Reality is like a donut: Everything that is good and funny and juicy is outside the center, which is just emptiness.”—Olga Tokarczuk

“The optimist sees the donut, the pessimist sees the hole.”—Oscar Wilde

Donuts and Computers

If you are an aficionado of American culture, and especially of old films from the 1930s, ‘40s, and ‘50s, then you know that U.S. police officers are intimately associated with donuts. In fact, you might get the impression that this was their favorite food, if not their only food.


Because when they were on patrol, especially late at night, if they wanted a quick bite to eat or a place to do their paperwork, the choices were very limited. After all, McDonald’s opened its first fast-food hamburger restaurant only in 1948 in San Bernardino, CA, and began seriously spreading across the country (and then the world) only in the mid-1950s. By contrast, at the time donut shops in America were already widespread, having begun their growth spurt in the 1930s. Krispy Kreme, one of the world’s largest chains (annual sale of over $500 million) was founded in 1937.

The police officer’s affection for donuts may have been overtaken by computer programmers. I have heard it said that free-wheeling, devil-may-care computer programmers spend much of the day munching on donuts and guzzling soft drinks while they are hard at work rather than going out for three-hour executive lunches.

Whether or not this is true (it seems plausible), there are a number of more significant and better-established associations between the venerable donut and modern-day computing.

Donut caching

The term “caching” derives from the word “cache,” which means a number of goods or valuables (especially when kept in a concealed or hard-to-reach place). In computer science, a “cache” is commonly defined as an auxiliary memory from which high-speed retrieval is possible. More expansively, a cache is a high-speed data storage layer that stores a subset of data so that future requests for that data are served up faster than is possible by accessing the data’s primary storage location.

In a 2014 Computer World article, Matthew Mombrea wrote: “One of the biggest hurdles when implementing caching on a web application is recognizing content specific to individual user accounts, such as username and profile photo. If you were to simply cache the entire page, the next visitor would receive the cached page along with the previous user’s name and photo, etc. To avoid this, you need to poke holes in the page cache for sections that should remain dynamic.”

The technical term for this is “substitution caching,” The slang term for it, the magazine says, is “donut caching.” Donut caching, the magazine says, is so named for two reasons: It is similar to Do NOT cache. If you picture your web page layout with a donut on top of it, the hole in the center would represent what’s not being cached, the solid would be cached.

“This strategy allows you to cache the majority of the page which may be common to every user while keeping the user’s specific stuff outside of the cache. This is also helpful for permissions-based features on a page where, depending on your level of access, you see different options. While it’s still possible to cache these user-specific areas by varying the cache per user or some custom parameter, this is the gist of donut caching,” explains Mombrea.

“Donut hole caching,” the article continues, “is the exact opposite of donut caching. In donut hole caching, only specific portions of a page are cached while the majority of the other content is left dynamic. This is useful when there are especially resource-intensive portions of a page that you want cached but the complexities of the application make it best left dynamic. Using our same image analogy from before, the solid part of the donut hole is the cached part while the empty area is dynamic.”

Donut social networking

The Donut Project describes itself as a “volunteer-driven, open-source, social networking software development organization seeking to change the way communities and individuals use and create open-source social-environment tools. It requires users to introduce and develop various solutions in the form of FOSS (free and open-source software) to be published for public use.”

Its donut social networking is an open-source, feature-rich, highly flexible, and privacy-friendly social networking platform built for community-oriented collaboration in a customized way. It has been built on the Node.js framework allowing an essential impetus to provide custom and friendly rich widgets and an expansive library of modules to make communication and collaboration easy and successful. With a powerful module system, you can customize this platform by using third-party tools, writing your own, or integrating other software.

Apple and donut

Steve Jobs, the founder of one of the world’s leading computer companies, is well known for his love of apples, hence the name of the company. It is therefore somewhat amusing that the company’s space-age headquarters building, inaugurated in 2019 at Apple Park, Cupertino, CA, has been widely nicknamed the Donut.

Covering an area of 2.8 million square feet (260,400 square meters), the cost of  Apple’s donut-shaped headquarters building came in at about $5 billion, in part because so much of it was custom-designed, including such things as treated glass, and specially designed tiles. Still, this still does not make it the most expensive building ever put up. This honor still goes to the Marina Bay Sands resort in Singapore at a cost of about $5.5 billion. However, it puts the Apple donut light years ahead of the Burj Kalifa (Dubai) the world’s tallest building (2,717 feet;  828 meters) at a cost of $1.5 billion.

Protecting programmers

Not to forget our friends the hard-working computer programmers, there is a product on the market called the Wrist Donut especially designed to combat the dreaded “work related upper limb disorders.” According to the manufacturer’s description, the donut, which is essentially an ergonomically designed wristband, is conceived to “provide complete freedom of movement—aiding the prevention of WRULD (work related upper limbs disorders).”

Specifically, it:

  • Cradles and supports your lower palm
  • Levels and supports your wrist joint in a relaxed position
  • Cushions and protects your wrist against any hard surface
  • Is lightweight and comfortable to wear
  • Is washable at 30* C

Mmm . . . Donuts.