The first Friday of June is a pastry-lover’s dream holiday: National Donut Day. One of the greatest pairings of food and drink might just be coffee and donuts, and that got us wondering about who created these savory and dunkable treats? Well, what we found is a mystery with the true answer lost to time—one that involves ship captains, world wars, multiple states, countries, and even Hollywood.
First of all—the elephant in the room. Is it “doughnut” or “donut”? The dictionary-approved spelling for the result of frying dough in fat is “doughnut.” (Thank you, Grammarist.) The shortened version has actually been around since the late 1800s but wasn’t popularized until the late 20th century by—you guessed it—Dunkin’ Donuts.
With possible ties as far back as biblical and prehistoric Native American times, the exact origin of the delicious treat is vague at best. Some researchers simply state that early “dough knots” are the origin of the rounded cake, and the name followed from there. Yet many others stick to the claim that original donuts came to New England by way of settlers from the English county of Hertfordshire, bringing recipes for yeast-raised “Hertfordshire Nuts,” which were also called “dow nuts,” as early as 1750.
The most widely accepted origin is from the Dutch, coming to New Amsterdam (now Manhattan) and bringing olykoeks—or “oily cakes.” These fried dough recipes were handed down until the mid-19th century, thanks to the contributions of a mother-son combo.
As the legend goes, Elizabeth Gregory, the mother of a ship’s captain, used her son’s spice cargo of nutmeg and cinnamon to enhance her already delectable deep-fried dough. Since the dough would never cook all the way through in the center, she put walnuts in the center, and in a literal stroke of genius, named them “doughnuts.” Then later, her son, Captain Gregory, was navigating a storm at sea while also enjoying one of his mother’s doughnuts. Needing the use of both hands to steady the ship, he skewered the doughnut on the spoke of a wheel. In the same dramatic instance, both the hole in a doughnut and the doughnut hole were created.
Donuts and coffee have been an inseparable pair in the United States and Canada, and it has a lot to do with National Donut Day. The holiday started in 1938 as a fundraiser for Chicago’s Salvation Army. The goal was to help those in need during the Great Depression and also honor the “Doughnut Dollies” of World War I. Women volunteering for the Red Cross were sent to France to set up canteens and social centers, offering up a taste of home to the troops by making donuts. This practice was repeated in World War II, and these women are still remembered every year on National Donut Day.
Coffee was also paired with the fried dough treats on front lines and almost everywhere donuts were made. The “coffee break” of the workforce adopted this match made in heaven in the 1930s as well, with most coffee ‘breaks” being accompanied by consuming donuts or pastries.
Donuts themselves have become a staple of both everyday and popular culture, thanks to music and film. In the 1934 movie It Happened One Night, Clarke Gable taught his costar Claudette Colbert (and the rest of the world) the proper way to dunk a donut. Famous musicians, including Burl Ives, have penned songs about the donut, and culture icons like Homer Simpson and Detective Dale Cooper are synonymous with their love of donuts.
There might not be anything better than sipping a hot cup of coffee in between gooey bites of your favorite donut. The greatest thing of all though is—when you enjoy coffee and donuts, you never have to share.