Doughnuts (or donuts) have a long and multi-cultural history. From the filhós of Portugal to the dona of Mexico, from India’s balushai to the lokma of Turkey, doughnut-related pastries are all based on the quick-cooking of lumps of sweet dough. But what about the classic deep-fried doughnut with a hole in the middle? Who invented the distinctive ring-shaped pastry that North Americans love to dunk in their coffee?
In Glazed America: A History of the Doughnut, anthropologist and author Paul R. Mullins traces the North American doughnut back to the olykoek or olliebollen of early 18th-century Dutch immigrants to the US east coast.
The doughnut hole itself appears to date back to the mid-1800s, and a New England sea captain named Hanson Crockett Gregory (c.1832-1921), but this is by no means certain. There are reports of petrified fried ring-shaped cakes found by archaeologists at Native American dig sites in the southwestern United States, and even the keenest supporters of Hanson Gregory as the inventor of the doughnut hole acknowledge that there are many versions of the tale, ranging from plausible to highly improbable.
Whatever the truth of the details, however, Captain Gregory is generally accepted by American doughnut-bakers’ professional associations as the inventor of the hole-y doughnut. He told his own colourful version to the Washington Post in an interview published on 26 March 1916:
“Old Salt” Doughnut Hole Inventor Tells Just How Discovery Was Made And Stomach of Earths Saved
Special to The Washington Post.
Boston, March 25 . — The man who invented the hole in the doughnut has been found. He is Capt. Hanson Gregory, at present an inmate in Sailor’s Snug Harbor, at Quincy, Mass. Doughnut cutters have made fortunes for men; millions eat doughnuts for breakfast and feel satisfied. Doctors do not assail the doughnut. And all of this owes its being to Capt. Gregory, who made the doughnut a safe, sane and hygienic food.
It’s a long story, mates; but as the 85-year-old chap relates it, it’s only too short. Outside the fact that Capt. Gregory is a bit hard of hearing, he’s as sound as new timber.
He’s a product of Maine; and so Maine can lay claim to the discoverer of the hole in the doughnut, along with the discoverer of new ways to evade the prohibition laws. But Capt. Gregory’s discovery is of real use in the world; millions have risen, and millions more shall rise up, and call him blessed.
‘Bout ’47 Was the Date.
“It was way back — oh, I don’t know just what year — let me see — born in ’31, shipped when I was 13 — well, I guess it was about ’47, when I was 16, that I was aboard ship and discovered the hole which was later to revolutionize the doughnut industry.
“I first shipped aboard the Isaac Achorn, three-masted schooner, Capt. Rhodes, in the lime trade. Later I joined other crews and other captains, and it was on one of these cruises that I was mawing doughnuts.
“Now in them days we used to cut the doughnuts into diamond shapes, and also into long strips, bent in half, and then twisted. I don’t think we called them doughnuts 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.”
“Pretty d—d tough, too!” profanely agreed one of the dozen pipe-smoking fellows who were all eyes and ears, taking in their comrade’s interview by The Post reporter.
With a glance at the perfervid interrupter, the discoverer continued:
“Well, I says to myself, ‘Why wouldn’t a space inside solve the difficulty?’ I thought at first I’d take one of the strips and roll it around, then I got an inspiration, a great inspiration.
“I took the cover off the ship’s tin pepper box, and — I cut into the middle of that doughnut the first hole ever seen by mortal eyes!”
“Were you pleased?”
“Was Columbus pleased? Well, sir, them doughnuts was the finest I ever tasted. No more indigestion — no more greasy sinkers — but just well-done, fried-through doughnuts.
“That cruise over, I went home to my old mother and father in Camden, Me., where I was born. My father, Hanson Gregory, sr., lived to be 93, and my mother lived to be 79. She was a pretty old lady then. I saw her making doughnuts in the kitchen — I can see her now, and as fine a woman as ever-lived, was my mother.
Taught Trick to Mother.
“I says to her: ‘Let me make some doughnuts for you.’ She says all right, so I made her one or two and then showed her how.
“She then made several panfuls and sent them down to Rockland, just outside Camden. Everybody was delighted and they never made doughnuts any other way except the way I showed my mother.
“Well, I never took out a patent on it; I don’t suppose any one can patent anything he discovers; I don’t suppose Peary could patent the north pole or Columbus patent America. But I thought I’d get out a doughnut cutter — but somebody got in ahead of me.
Hole “Cut Out,” His Joke.
“Of course a hole ain’t so much; but it’s the best part of the doughnut — you’d think so if you had ever tasted the doughnuts we used to eat in ’31. Of course, lots of people joke about the hole in the doughnut. I’ve got a joke myself: Whenever anybody says to me: ‘Where’s the hole in the doughnut?’ I always answer: ‘It’s been cut out!'” and the old chap laughed loud and longat his little sally, while the rest joined in.
So there he sits — in the Snug Harbor by the sea. And whenever there’s doughnuts on the day’s fare, Capt. Gregory takes a personal pride trying to do what nobody’s succeeded in doing yet — in trying to find the hole in the doughnut. And whenever the old salts rally him about it, he always springs his little joke:
“The hole’s been cut out, I guess!” to the delight of the whole shipful.
Notes on Doughnut-related Inventors
In 1872, John F. Blondel of Thomaston, Maine, is said to have patented the first doughnut-hole machine, in which a spring-loaded tube pushed the dough out of the cake’s middle.
In 1921, Adolph Levitt patented a more efficient doughnut-making machine for mass-production. Ten years later, his invention was written up in “Glorifying the Doughnut” published in The New Yorker.
A plaque was erected and dedicated in November 1947 to mark Hanson Gregory’s birthplace, now the parsonage of the Nativity Lutheran Church, near Clam Cove in the town of Rockport, Maine.