September 3, 2022 at 12:58 am

The Interesting, Surprising History of Donuts and How They Got Their Name

by Matthew Gilligan

Who doesn’t love doughnuts?!?! (We’ll be using the spellings “doughnuts” AND “donuts” in this article, by the way).

I think it’s safe to say that about 99.9999% of the population enjoys a doughnut or two from time to time…and the other .0001% are just in denial.

But besides being delicious, doughnuts have an interesting history.

It’s hard to pinpoint exactly where doughnuts were invented because humans have been frying dough for thousands of years and there are a lot of possible origins.

But it’s generally accepted that when Dutch settlers first came to New York City, they brought native dishes with them including olykoeks, or “oil cakes.” This dish was basically lumps of dough that had been fried in pork fat. They were also called oliebollen, or “oil balls”, in English.

Screen Shot 2022 08 28 at 1.18.57 PM The Interesting, Surprising History of Donuts and How They Got Their Name

Photo Credit: Unsplash,Rod Long

In his 1809 book A History of New York, from the Beginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty, Washington Irving spoke of “balls of sweetened dough, fried in hog’s fat, and called doughnuts, or olykoeks.”

Other historians point to German or English origins or a combination of native dishes that got mixed up together.

Whatever the case, an American sailor named Hanson Gregory said he came up with what we now call doughnuts, ring-shaped fried dough with a hole in the middle, in 1847. Hanson said that the primitive doughnuts in those days didn’t yet have a hole in them and that the outside was usually crispy but the center of the treat was still undercooked.

Hanson claims he was 16-years-old and working on a ship when he decided to change the doughnut game forever by removing the middle of the treats with the lid of a box. Hanson said when he returned from sea to his home in Maine, he showed his mother his new creation and her doughnuts became popular locally.

As for the name, some people think the “nut” part of the name came from the small shape of the original treats or that it might be because the Dutch used actual nuts and other ingredients to stuff the middle of the dough that was still undercooked.

The name was shortened from “doughnut” to “donut” in some places in the early 1900s but the opening of the first Dunkin’ Donuts store in Quincy, Massachusetts, in 1950 made the shorter version more common.

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Photo Credit: Unsplash,Maxime

Donuts really came into their own during World War I when the Salvation Army sent volunteers to France to give food and supplies to troops. Volunteers wanted to bake pies and cakes for the soldiers stationed there, but ovens were hard to come by close to the battlefield, so the female volunteers used pans heated over a fire to make donuts instead.

The sweet treats were a big hit and the women who cooked them overseas during the war were called Doughnut Lassies. When American soldiers returned home they brought their newfound taste for donuts with them and the popularity of the treat spread throughout the U.S.

Today, there are more than 18,000 donut shops in the U.S. Around the world, sweetened fried dough is enjoyed in various forms in countries all over the world.

I mean, what’s not to like, right?

Take an even deeper dive into the wonderful history of donuts in the video below!

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