Monday, May 02, 2016

Much Ado about "Nothing:" The Hole Story of the Doughnut by Pat Miller

Few remember the master mariner Hanson Crockett Gregory.

But the pastry he invented more than 166 years ago is eaten daily by doughnut lovers everywhere.

Born in Rockport, Maine, little Hanson succumbed to the romance of the sea at age thirteen to become a cabin boy on the schooner Isaac Achorn. A cabin boy is at the bottom of the ladder for able-bodied seaman, so he did all kinds of jobs. Young and nimble, he was sent aloft into the rigging to manage the sails.

But one less glamorous job was helping the cook, and Hanson had to get up very early to help brew the coffee and make dozens and dozens of fry cakes for the crew's breakfast. The cakes were flattened lumps of yeasty dough, fried in a kettle of boiling oil.

The hard-working crew awoke hungry and scarfed them down, but they did grumble about one problem. The round, browned lumps they called "dough nuts," were crispy and tasty on the outside, but sometimes the middles were left uncooked. But to get the centers done, the fry cakes had to be overcooked and emerged hard and soaked with oil.

Sailors called those "Sinkers."

They joked that if they fell overboard with a stomach full of the those greasy fry cakes, they would sink like a stone.

But Hanson Gregory was a bright lad, and one morning he had his Eureka moment. He unscrewed the lid from a pepper canister and used it to cut out the centers of the fry cakes before they hit the kettle, a technique which eliminated the raw center and also expedited the cooking process considerably.

The cook had never seen such a downright fool thing. Neither had the sailors who showed up for breakfast. The cakes were brown, and sweet, and... fully cooked!

And the rest is, as we say, history. When Hanson returned for liberty in Rockport, he shared his recipe for the holey dough nut with his mother, who opened a shop on the dock to sell Hanson's "holey cakes," which, um, sold like hot cakes. A new American food was launched.

Pat Miller's forthcoming The Hole Story of the Doughnut (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016) relates both the true story and and the folklore that grew up around that round foodstuff so well suited for hungry sailors with little time to linger over breakfast. Perfectly designed to be held in the human hand, doughnuts have circumnavigated the globe since Hanson went to sea in 1844. Miller cheerily relates the apocryphal story that Captain Hanson invented the holey doughnut while at the wheel of his clipper ship during a raging storm by impaling a fry cake on one of the spokes whenever he needed both his hands to steer, a story which would make the good captain one of the world's early multitaskers. Captain Hanson retired from the sea at age 36 to become a mining engineer and was buried, appropriately enough, in Snug Harbor, Massachusetts, justly honored as the creator of the already famed food, As he himself wryly put it in a newspaper interview in 1916, he invented...

"... the first hole ever seen by mortal eyes."

No mention is made of Hanson's corollary invention, not just the "nothing" in the center of the doughnut, but also the tasty "doughnut hole," although we can bet that those thrifty New Englanders fried those cutout centers too, just as we do to this day, for handy snacks. Pat Miller's slightly tongue-in-cheek recounting of Hanson's invention tells the whole story of that hole--the historical facts and the lore of the hole that developed around Hanson's quirky invention, backed up by an author's note covering the modern story of the doughnut, a timeline, and bibliography in the brief appendix. Artist Vincent X. Kirsch contributes the jaunty cut-paper collage illustrations that carry forth the metaphor by providing doughnut-shaped frames for Miller's text and endpapers that boast a varied array of doughnuts of more kinds than any pastry shop can proffer.

A witty and whimsical look at a charming bit of American gastronomical history that will leave young readers' curiosity satisfied, but their appetites perhaps whetted.

This one pairs naturally with Mara Rockliff's tasty true tale of Americana food lore, her Gingerbread for Liberty!: How a German Baker Helped Win the American Revolution. (Read my 2015 review here.)

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