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The brutal war and sweet patriotism that led to National Donut Day

An assortment of fresh-baked donuts, cinnamon rolls and muffins are shown. (File / PR Newswire)
An assortment of fresh-baked donuts, cinnamon rolls and muffins are shown. (File / PR Newswire)

A century ago, not long after the United States entered World War I, the Salvation Army deployed hundreds of volunteers to France to soothe and bolster American troops.

The boys were homesick. They were hungry. They wanted a slice of apple pie.

But that, of course, was impossible. The many indignities of war include this undeniable one: A fox hole is a terrible place to bake.

So the Salvation Army troops improvised, frying dough in soldier helmets, producing such delicious donuts that when the war was over, when the troops finally came home, the government produced a guide for veterans to open donut shops.

This is how the donut came to America. This is what led to National Donut Day. This is why the line at Dunkin’ Donuts was extra long Friday morning – free donuts, not as a marketing ploy (well, maybe a little), but to remember the sacrifices those boys made and the Salvation Army volunteers who comforted them.

They called those volunteers, mostly women, “Donut Lassies.”

“As they dipped donuts for their boys, they dispensed motherhood,” John T. Edge wrote in “Donuts: An American Passion,” a seminal volume in the genre of historic deliciousness.

The recipe called for:

– 5 C flour;

– 2 C sugar;

– 5 tsp. baking powder;

– 1 ‘saltspoon’ salt;

– 2 eggs;

– 1 3/4 C milk; and

– 1 Tub lard.

The most important instruction: “Dust with powdered sugar. Let cool and enjoy.”

Edge, a food historian (what a gig!), identified three important rounds in the popularization of donuts. The first was the Salvation Army effort.

“By the close of World War I, the Salvation Army was among the strongest charitable forces in America,” Edge wrote, “and their chosen totem, the donut, was an ingrained symbol of home.”

The second was the invention of – the following words are completely true – the Wonderful Almost Human Doughnut Machine, invented by Adolph Levitt, a Jewish immigrant from Eastern Europe.

“When filled with his proprietary dough mix, it cranked out hundreds of perfectly round donuts per hour,” Edge wrote. “Placed in a window for all to see, the machine stopped traffic in Times Square.”

Let us pause to consider whether any other food has stopped traffic at The Crossroads of the World.


Anyway, there’s one more round – the third. Edge calls this one “glamour.” It takes place during the Great Depression. By this time, donuts are an industry – not big and important like, say, steel, but important. And tasty.

“As the nation slid into economic depression, the industry feared that donuts might go the way of the street corner apple,” Edge writes. “So they aligned themselves with America’s emerging aristocracy, the ladies of gentlemen of Hollywood.”

Frank Capra put donuts in his movies. There’s that scene in “It Happened One Night” where Clark Gable teaches, as Edge puts it, “donut etiquette.” On Shirley Temple’s list of works is this: “Dora’s Dunking Donuts.” Laurel and Hardy posed for photos holding donuts.

And you know what?

Donuts survived the Great Depression. Hooray for donuts.

While their nutritional value is questionable, their patriotic value is as certain as the round hole at their center, through which eaters can look back through time and see not just food history, but the story of America – of our boys fighting for what’s right, fueled by what would become the country’s favorite pastry.