The Scandalous History and Strange Physics of Donuts

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Because food is comfortable and domestic we tend to forget that it's also part of an ongoing scientific process of discovery. Even the humble doughnut has its own history that includes physics, technology, and competing claims of intellectual property.


Who do we owe money to when we buy doughnuts? Ideally, we pay it to the sugar-enabler who directly sells us the doughnut, but there are two guys who might argue that they deserve a piece of all doughnut sales. Or, at least, they would argue that if they weren't both dead. (No, it wasn't too many doughnuts that did it.)

It looks like the makings of doughnuts made it to American shores in the 1700s, when the Dutch came over. They were just deep-fried balls of dough, sometimes spiced for flavor, and called "oilycakes." That's good marketing, right there. Those making the cakes soon came up against a physics problem brought on by the American appetite. As cakes got bigger, they needed to be fried longer. Once they got big enough, the outsides became saturated or burnt, while the insides were still gloopy and raw. How to solve the dilemma? Some makers tried adding nuts or fruit, which didn't need to be cooked, to the center. One man responded the only proper way; by showing those fruit-pushers that Americans would rather eat nothing than eat fruit. Captain Hanson Gregory claimed to have been the first to put the hole in the oilycaked, having thought it up in 1847 at the age of 16 during a long sailing voyage. He popped the middle out of the centers of dough with the lid of a pepper tin, and invented the modern doughnut.

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Or did he? Sure, anyone can put a hole in a piece of dough. It was the age of industrialization, and perhaps the first person to make it really profitable deserves the credit. In 1872, John Blondel filed a patent with the US Patent Office, for an actual doughnut cutter. He used blocks of wood loaded on springs to punch holes through dough, and let sellers make, punch out, and sell as many doughnuts as they liked.

Sure, it's not the Pythagorean Theorem, but how many times have you put that in your mouth? Both men have an intellectual claim to an iconic American food. Which is the stronger? Blondel is definitely the johnnie-come-lately, arriving with his breakthrough invention a quarter century after Gregory. Then again, Blondel has documentation on his side. Gregory's story - and some versions of it have him punching holes in doughnuts to make them lighter after watching men who ate overly large oilycakes drowned - might just be the world's weirdest fish story. Who has the intellectual property rights to the ultimate snack of cops, office workers, and Homer Simpson? What do you think?

Top Image: NCI

Via All Things Maine, Today In Sci, The Lewiston Journal.




In Dutch, it's called an "oliebollen" and is still traditional to make on New Years Day. My family is Dutch and we still make these on special occasions, including New Years Day (see the attached photo from earlier this year), using a recipe from my great grandmother. After they're fried, we sprinkle either powdered or granulated sugar on them (I prefer granulated). Sometimes we put small pieces of apple in them, or raisins, but technically that's a different confectionery treat.