There are many foods that have an interesting story behind them, where they came from and how they got to be so popular. Few foods, however, have a background that is as closely tied with American history and culture as the donut. This simple pastry is classic Americana. The donut was a recipe frequently included in early American cookbooks. Although fried doughs exist in many cultures and have for centuries, the ring-shaped donut as we know it today was developed in the US just about 150 years ago and it has become more familiar as time has passed.
Glazed America is a book written by anthropologist Paul Mullins that explores the history of the donut, both in terms of the development of donut recipes and the technology associated with donuts, and in terms of donut culture. For instance, donuts – a high profit margin food that could still be sold very inexpensively – were made by hand at the beginning of the 20th century. Around 1920, a donut-making machine was developed by donut entrepreneur Adolph Levitt, which enabled donuts to be made more quickly and more consistently, keeping prices low and donuts as a very affordable food. The machines spread quickly over the next several years, just in time to make donut shops a must-stop breakfast spot for commuters traveling from homes in quickly-growing suburbs into larger cities. And this timeline is but one example of how the donut fit perfectly into the American mainstream.
The book is a fun read for both donut fans and anyone who is interested in food history (or anthropology in general, for that matter). It has lots of background on the food and even more information tying the donut in with trends in popular culture as you read through the book. There aren’t any recipes, but the few photos that are included illustrate old advertisements and old donut shops in a way that makes you want to run out and buy a donut or two. For a preview of some of the information in the book, check out this brief video of Paul Mullins discussing the project and a little bit of donut history: