A brief history of the tuberous treat
Spudnuts restaurant
Credit: Photo via Flickr/thegirlsny

We’re living in a golden age of doughnuts. Go to any city, and you can find small bakeries frying up rings of dough and piling them high with everything from breakfast cereal to bacon, flavored with any spices and herbs you can dream up (shout out Blackbird Doughnuts in Boston for the everything bagel doughnut). These days you’ll even find potato doughnuts, pioneered by national doughnut darling Leigh Kellis of The Holy Donut in Portland, Maine. But they’re not just a trend—these tender, moist, light cake doughnuts have a deep history.

In the US, potato doughnuts can probably be traced back to 18th century German immigrants to Pennsylvania—the same Pennsylvania Dutch who gave us such treats as whoopie and shoofly pies. According to food historian William Woys Weaver's book, As American as Shoofly Pie, there was a tradition of frying sweet, potato-based doughnuts on Shrove Tuesday to rid the home of sugar and fat before Lent. That tradition continues still, although not all Pennsylvania fastnacht are made with potatoes. Some are simply flour doughnuts.

The name potato doughnuts can be traced to Maine, but long before Kellis’s time. Yankee magazine published a recipe for Maine Potato Doughnuts in 1937. Contributed by a writer and doctor’s wife named Pearl Ashby Tibbetts, the recipe includes mashed potatoes, which makes perfect sense in context: Tibbetts was from Aroostook County, Maine, where potatoes were a major crop. In fact, at that time, more potatoes were grown in Maine than in Idaho. Potato candy was also a thing there, but that didn’t seem to have the same sort of staying power.

Tibbetts’s good old-fashioned Yankee thrift meant she reached for an ingredient that was cheap and local to stretch out her flour. They also happen to absorb moisture and can are stiff enough to hold air, both of which are ideal conditions for good doughnuts.

The doughnut recipe’s publication coincided with another important moment in American potato doughnut history. Before Dunkin’ Donuts was even a twinkle in New Englanders’ eyes, brothers Al and Bob Pelton tried fastnacht on a trip to Germany, then returned home to Salt Lake City and launched Spudnuts in 1947.

The brothers created a baking mix and sold it to franchisees, as well as to the public. Spudnuts locations spread across the country and into Canada, Mexico and even Japan before the brothers retired and sold their stock in the company in 1968. The business changed hands a few times before closing for good in 1980, but a handful of independent Spudnuts are still around.

As an aside, another national doughnut chain that opened in 1937 is rumored to have used either mashed potatoes or potato flour in its original recipe: Krispy Kreme guards its formula closely, and has moved toward a simplified, mass-produced mix to ensure all franchises turn out the exact same airy-sweet confections.

With the gradual shuddering of Spudnuts outposts, America entered a dark ages for potato doughnuts, maybe doughnuts altogether. (A French exchange student who stayed with my family in the late ‘90s kept insisting we take him somewhere with good doughnuts.) The nation moved into an era when doughnuts were about gimmicks, like handles for dunking, Boston cream doughnuts, and doughnuts glazed with NyQuil. When Kellis was craving the perfect soft-on-the-inside, crispy-on-the-outside doughnut, she decided she had to create her own. At the time, she didn’t know the history of her secret ingredient right there in her home state.

“I just was led to believe from a chef friend that potatoes would make great doughnuts,” she says. “So I experimented with the recipe and found it to be true.”

She was not wrong: Her shop has landed on just about every major food outlet’s list of the best doughnuts in the country, including Extra Crispy’s. As doughnut consumers have more options and become more discerning, these ones stand out for their fine crumb, tenderness, and moisture.

“Potatoes are the magical ingredient,” Kellis says. “They are not dry! Otherwise there’s no secret science.”