Foodie Friday: The Rise And Rise Of The Gourmet Doughnut, Part I

Out of all the food-and-drink “movements” being embraced by foodies, hipsters, and the hungry masses riding the coattails of a trend, nothing speaks to us like the gourmet doughnut.

The reasons are simple. Like parfaits, doughnuts are liked by practically everybody. They’ve been an American food staple for two centuries, in part because they miraculously span the gap between granola and Twinkies. Also, they’re really good with coffee.

Doughnuts are a crucial part of American culture. Red Cross “doughnut dollies” handed out millions of doughnuts to troops headed off to fight in World War II. Every day doughnuts feed countless policemen nationwide. (As Randall “Tex” Cobb’s character famously noted in Raising Arizona, “You want to find an outlaw, hire an outlaw. You want to find a Dunkin’ Donuts, call a cop.”) And doughnuts have been the prop of choice for leading men from Clark Gable to Homer Simpson.

None of this is news to Paul Mullins. The cultural-anthropology professor at IUPUI wrote the Great American Doughnut Book, Glazed America, and continues to write about doughnut culture with great perception and depth on his blog, “Archaeology and Material Culture.” (Don’t let the name throw you; it’s really good.)

We had an email chat with Mullins about doughnuts. He was in Finland; we were in Wisconsin. And neither of us, unfortunately, had doughnuts.

This story comes in two pieces: our chat with Mullins (the apple fritter) followed on Monday by our writers’ – and Mullins’ – favorite doughnut destinations around the country (the cruller). Because what’s a Monday morning without doughnuts?

You’ve obviously followed developments in doughnut culture since you wrote Glazed America in 2008. Did you see the rise in gourmet doughnuts coming — and when did it become apparent?

There were places we might now call “gourmet doughnut” bakeries as early as the 1970s, places that were particular about raw ingredients and cooking techniques, and had novel recipes, but they really weren’t a niche in consumers’ minds until the last five years or so. I think in some ways the rise of gourmet doughnuts in our consciousness owes a lot to the media coverage of this sort of doughnut preparation that breaks radically from our caricature of the mass-produced doughnut.

Was there any shop or baker that really blazed the way?

There’s no single bakery that deserves special notice, but the places that have secured the most popular attention seem to me to be the Doughnut Plant in New York, which really was always cooking doughnuts with artisanal ingredients, and Voodoo Doughnuts in Portland, which has secured attention as much for its theatricality as its doughnuts. But the heart of its theater has been novel doughnut varieties.

Doughnut heaven: A Meyer-lemon/key-lime (top) and a blueberry cake doughnut from Portland's Blue Star Donuts.
Doughnut heaven: A Meyer-lemon/key-lime (top) and a blueberry cake doughnut from Portland’s Blue Star Donuts.

What encouraged the development of gourmet doughnuts? In your blog post you make a great point that no one would think twice about a gourmet charcuterie or artisanal beer, but the idea of a gourmet doughnut seems a little hard to swallow (no pun intended). Why is that?

The emergence of a foodies movement has been the single most critical factor supporting gourmet doughnuts. The notion that taste, delivery, culinary skill, ingredients, and novelty are the heart of self-reflective and educated food consumption runs counter to mass foodways. Burgers and doughnuts are meant to be consumed rapidly and without any thought at all. Nearly nobody has ever asked to thank the chef at Krispy Kreme or flattered the burger-flippers at McDonalds, but we do that in high-style gourmet places. The doughnut is perhaps the most commonplace of foods, caricatured as a prototypical mass-consumed food, so for many people — including a lot of the press — the doughnut’s installation in the pantheon of gourmet foods is a funny irony that makes the start of an interesting story.

Are gourmet/artisinal doughnuts here to stay? How long can this facet of doughnut culture last? We’ve already seen the bloom fall off the gourmet-cupcake rose.

Gourmet cupcakes and doughnuts are hard to assess in terms of marketplace impact: they receive a lot of press as novelties, but it’s not clear they’re making even the most modest dent in the kingdoms of Dunkin’, Krispy Kreme, or local bakeries. I suspect that large cities can support gourmet doughnut shops just as they’ve long supported bakeries producing high-end pastries and similar products, but they’re likely to remain a bit of a niche market.

Have the changes in doughnut culture changed your definition of what constitutes a good doughnut?

Not really. Some of us prefer the predictability of mass-marketed foods; there’s comfort in going to a fast-food joint or familiar corner bakery and knowing exactly what it will taste like. And there’ll always be folks who prefer the variety doughnut and a host of novel tastes.


Author: Kit Kiefer

As content engineer for Berkshire Hathaway Travel Protection, I have one of the world's great jobs. Not only do I get to write about travel, but I get to edit the work of fantastically talented contributors from around the world. Plus I get all the maple syrup I can drink.