The whole whodunnit of doughnuts and the forthcoming holey day’s holy links

Ensign Helen Purviance on right and Doughnut Team
Ensign Helen Purviance on right and Doughnut Team

News Letter readers’ communications with Roamer have often resulted in some unusual and unanticipated accounts and today’s focus on doughnuts, or donuts, isn’t breaking with that tradition!

Aptly, doughnuts boast a remarkable legacy!

Doughnut Dollies serving First World War soldiers.

Doughnut Dollies serving First World War soldiers.

My recent discussions with Co Armagh reader and doughnut-connoisseur Christine about the ideal doughnut led inextricably to the history and etymology of her favourite snack, and to the unexpected (and completely coincidental) realisation that this coming Friday, June 1st is National Doughnut Day in the USA.

And very appropriately, Christine’s ‘holey’ delicacy has holy associations!

The doughnut’s links with the Salvation Army date back to First World War, when women from the organisation cooked and served tens of thousands of them to front-line troops, earning the Sally Ann girls the nickname ‘Doughnut Dollies’ or ‘Donut Lassies’.

While food resembling doughnuts has been found on many ancient archaeological sites, the earliest origin of the modern doughnut is thought to be the ‘olykoek’ (oily cake) that Dutch settlers brought to New Amsterdam, later New York, in the early 18th century.

Front of Salvation Army 'War Cry' Magazine, November 9th November 1918

Front of Salvation Army 'War Cry' Magazine, November 9th November 1918

This was a sweetened ball of dough, deep-fried in animal fat.

The earliest known recorded use of the word doughnut dates to an 1808 account of “fire-cakes and dough-nuts” in America and these early versions, though not ring-shaped, were referenced in Washington Irving’s History of New York published in 1809.

Describing local folks’ appetite for apple-pies Irving highlighted a settler family’s preference for “enormous dishes of balls of sweetened dough, fried in hog’s fat, and called dough-nuts, or oly koeks – a delicious kind of cake, at present scarce known in this city, excepting in genuine Dutch families”.

Some culinary historians cite 16-year-old Hanson Gregory, working on an American lime-trading ship in 1847, as the first creator of the ring-shaped doughnut.

Traditional American doughnut or donut

Traditional American doughnut or donut

Young Hanson disliked the greasy, ball-shaped doughnut with its almost raw centre.

So he punched a hole in the middle of the dough with a tin pepper-pot from the ship’s kitchen, and later, when visiting his home, he taught the technique to his mother, Elizabeth Gregory.

It’s said by some that Elizabeth put hazelnuts or walnuts into the centre of the dough and called it a doughnut!

Whoever dunnit first, the doughnut became immensely popular across the USA (and the world!) and during First World War in 1917 a smiling Salvation Army lady handed a first, fresh, front-line doughnut to a homesick American soldier in France.

News of the delicious snack spread along the lines and soon the Sally Ann’s doughnuts entered the annals of war history.

This Friday’s National Doughnut Day started in America in 1938 as a fund raiser for Chicago’s Salvation Army, to help those in need during the Great Depression and to commemorate their ‘Doughnut Dollies’ and ‘Donut Lassies’ of First World War.

In 1917, young Salvation Army officer Helen Purviance, an ensign in the organisation, was sent to France to work with the American First Division.

Along with fellow officer, Ensign Margaret Sheldon, Helen kneaded the first batch of dough by hand, later using a wine bottle as a rolling pin.

They’d no doughnut cutter so the girls sliced the dough into rectangular strips with a knife and then twisted them into braided “crullers”.

Ensign Purviance filled a small, potbellied stove with wood, coaxing it to burn at an even heat to fry the dough.

It was back-breaking, leaning over the low fire, so she chose a more comfortable posture “literally on my knees,” Ensign Purviance recalled, “when those first doughnuts were fried, seven at a time, in a small frying pan. There was also a prayer in my heart that somehow this home-touch would do more for those who ate the doughnuts than satisfy a physical hunger.”

Soon the tempting smell of frying doughnuts attracted a long line of soldiers towards the ensigns’ make-shift kitchen and, standing in mud and rain, they patiently waited for their turn.

Even though they’d worked through the night, the Salvation Army girls could only serve up 150 doughnuts on their first day.

But next day they doubled their output.

The first contingency of Salvationists included about 200 ensigns, officers and volunteers and within a short time, after they expanded and properly resourced their front-line kitchens, they were making many thousands of doughnuts daily.

It has been recounted that in the farther-flung trenches they sometimes used soldiers’ helmets as frying pans!

Ensign Purviance upped the output by persuading a French blacksmith to improvise a doughnut cutter by attaching the open-top of a condensed milk can to a wooden block.

Soon all sorts of labour-saving inventions were recycled and deployed by the Salvation Army including empty baking powder tins, glass globes from oil-burning lamps and the tops of coffee percolators.

While the term ‘doughboy’ describing US Army infantrymen is purely coincidental - the nickname was in use as early as the Mexican American War of 1846/47 - the idea of a National Doughnut Day was further enhanced by an American POW during the war in Vietnam.

In 1969 Flight Lieutenant Orson Swindle had been a prisoner for three years with very little food in Son Tay prison in North Vietnam.

Orson persuaded his captors that doughnuts were traditional fare on American Veterans’ Day (November 11).

They were duly served up to the 50 POWs in Son Tay instead of the routine menu of a spoonful of rice and swamp grass soup.

Veterans’ Day still doubles as an alternative National Doughnut Day.