Tuesday, May 26, 2020

The man who put the hole in the donut

I was intrigued to learn the history behind the hole in the donut.

Captain Gregory, 85, lived at the Sailor’s Snug Harbor in Quincy, Mass. His fame as the inventor of the modern donut had spread, and the Washington Post interviewed him in a story published March 26, 1916.

He told the reporter he discovered the donut hole when he worked as a 16-year-old crewman on a lime-trading schooner.

“Now in them days we used to cut the doughnuts into diamond shapes, and also into long strips, bent in half, and then twisted,” he said. “I don’t think we called them donuts then–they was just ‘fried cakes’ and ‘twisters.’ Well, sir, they used to fry all right around the edges, but when you had the edges done the insides was all raw dough. And the twisters used to sop up all the grease just where they bent, and they were tough on the digestion.”

He asked himself if a space inside the dough would solve the difficulty – and then came the great inspiration.

“I took the cover off the ship’s tin pepper box, and—I cut into the middle of that donut the first hole ever seen by mortal eyes!”

Gregory, born in 1832, would have had his insight around 1858. According to the New York Times, he rose to second mate at 19, mate at 21 and master mariner at 25. He sailed in all kinds of vessels from the lime coaster to a full-rigged ship.

But the donut made him famous. He had asked a tinsmith to fabricate a donut cutter for him, and soon, reported the Times, ‘cooks everywhere had adopted it.’

There's more at the link.

The dates in the article don't quite add up.  If Gregory had "invented" the donut hole at the age of 16, it would have been in 1848, not 1858.  Nevertheless, it's an amusing anecdote, and quite possibly true, given that no alternative explanation for the donut hole has ever been advanced.

The Smithsonian Magazine thinks that Gregory's mother may have had something to do with it.

Fast-forward to the mid-19th century and Elizabeth Gregory, a New England ship captain's mother who made a wicked deep-fried dough that cleverly used her son's spice cargo of nutmeg and cinnamon, along with lemon rind. Some say she made it so son Hanson and his crew could store a pastry on long voyages, one that might help ward off scurvy and colds. In any case, Mrs. Gregory put hazelnuts or walnuts in the center, where the dough might not cook through, and in a literal-minded way called them doughnuts.

Her son always claimed credit for something less than that: putting the hole in the doughnut. Some cynical doughnut historians maintain that Captain Gregory did it to stint on ingredients, others that he thought the hole might make the whole easier to digest. Still others say that he gave the doughnut its shape when, needing to keep both hands on the wheel in a storm, he skewered one of his mom's doughnuts on a spoke of his ship's wheel. In an interview with the Boston Post at the turn of the century, Captain Gregory tried to quell such rumors with his recollection of the moment 50 years before: using the top of a round tin pepper box, he said, he cut into the middle of a doughnut "the first doughnut hole ever seen by mortal eyes."

Again, more at the link.

I never thought of the donut as being part of seafaring history, as well as culinary.  One learns something new every day.



Unknown said...

Perhaps not coincidentally, Quincy is the home of the original Dunkin Donuts.

Jim said...

The real reason doughnut holes. The doughnut actually started as diet food. The hole is where most of the calories were removed, therefore you may eat all you like. That's my story and I'm sticking to it.

Old NFO said...

Interesting... LOL

Sherm said...

Of course if strawberries are more your style:

1LLoyd said...

😆 You have made me a convert.

Sam L. said...

I read years ago that the hole came from the captain putting the doughnuts on the spokes of the ship's wheel, so they'd be handy.