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Does the rise of artisanal doughnuts herald the end of an American classic?

Ryan Max
November 01, 2017

I live a few doors down from the worst place in the world: a vegan artisanal doughnut store. Twee flavors of not-very-good doughnuts served on planks of wood attract fifth- and sixth-wave Brooklyn gentrifiers to Dunwell Doughnuts. As a third-wave gentrifier, I lament the vintage shop it replaced. Poorly organized and very dusty, Vortex was a mess but full of wonders. To me, the non-working, old-fashioned radio in Dunwell is a hollow mockery of the cheap items I once found at the late, great Vortex. Meanwhile, a large red Food Network decal in the window signals Dunwell’s ambitions for an audience far beyond its friendly neighbors. Even worse, on some nights Dunwell hosts old-timey dance classes.

Personal grievances aside, there’s something much larger at stake here: the soul of an iconic American breakfast food. Our love for doughnuts was forged in the trenches of the Great War. Doughnuts became big business as local doughnut shops anchored neighborhood breakfast food scenes across the nation and regional chains turned them into a consistent and dependable treat. Grandpas brought doughnut holes to family breakfasts across the continent, and things were good. 

In the last decade or so, this democratic food has started to loose from its moorings, with experimental, expensive doughnut places opening all over. The trend started with earnest, sometimes exciting efforts to breathe new life into the staple. Establishments like The Doughnut Plant in New York City did wonderful things with flour, sugar, yeast, and oil.

But imitators came along and prices and preciousness rose faster than genuine innovation. An unholy alliance of diet fads, an obsession with all things local, and of-the-moment flavors transformed something with a long, proud history into an unrecognizable and expensive hunk of decorated fried dough. Some have dared to ask “what even is a doughnut anymore?” We have seen the answers to that question, and they are not good

What do we lose when trends push something accessible, simple, and ubiquitous out of reach for the majority of people, financially or culturally? What, we must ask, is becoming of our doughnuts?

The evidence that doughnuts are losing their meaning and identity is all around us. The “Sloppy Jonut” at Glam Doll in Minneapolis; the “pepperoni and cheese laminated brioche for savory Tuesday lunch pizza doughnuts” at Blackbird Doughnuts in Boston; the negroni doughnut at Blue Star Donuts in Portland, Oregon. They all stretch the definition of “doughnut” and “good taste.” As a civilization, we can only hope that we have arrived at—and will soon depart—“peak stupid doughnut” (“PSD”). 

The origins of PSD can arguably be traced back to Krispy Kreme. Though the venerable chain had been a staple throughout the South for decades, its arrival was a watershed in many parts of the US as it expanded in the 1990s. 

Much like Starbucks paved the way for Americans to consider coffee a luxury product, Krispy Kreme elevated the humble doughnut into something to be taken seriously. Their glowing red “Hot Now” signs trained patrons to salivate over fresh, warm glazed Os. People arrived to work and family gatherings carrying the iconic white boxes covered with green dots, savoring the attention they brought even before the lid was opened. Grocery store doughnut holes shoveled into bags with squares of tissue paper were suddenly a disappointment. Doughnut connoisseurship had arrived. 

What turned doughnut fetishism into something more pernicious was the unstoppable force that is modern lifestyle and wellness branding. Quality, local ingredients can be laudable. Catering to an underserved group with food allergies and dietary restrictions—that’s an admirable mission, too. 

But that’s not what gave rise to PSD. Egg-averse, celiac hordes did not bring Dunwell to my doorstep. It was the potent combination of dietary trends pushed by marketers to a half-informed public; Instagram-obsessed food seekers who seem to believe that if you don’t take a picture of it, you didn’t eat it; and of a conflation of all these things to make a critical mass of consumers believe that stupid doughnuts are worth the investment to show the world that when it comes to niche food, you are most definitely in the know.

Something about PSD is not just annoying in a late-capitalist kind of way. What’s actually harmful to people is the impression that attaching words like gluten free, paleo (CAVE PEOPLE DID NOT EAT DOUGHNUTS), and local indicates that these things are healthy alternatives to a classic, deep-fried doughnut. If you need to watch your caloric intake or glycemic load, there’s a simpler solution: Don’t eat doughnuts. 

There are reasons for hope. For one, like a great omen of celestial realignment, the backlash to overpriced coffee has arrived in full force

For another, while social media can make it seem like Stupid Doughnuts have won the day, the old guard remains strong. Craig Parent, owner of Goody Good Donuts in Laconia, New Hampshire—one of Extra Crispy’s 51 Best Doughnut Shops in America—is among many local establishments flourishing without giving in to PSD pressure. “Unfortunately I see these shops will do the same thing cupcakes have done: big hype but in due time falling to the wayside.” His shop’s emphasis is all about “getting good doughnuts at a fair price,” he says, especially for the year-round residents of Laconia. Goody Good also sells t-shirts that display the store’s mantra: “We’re Fried, Not Baked.” I’ll take that as an expression of their doughnuts’ inherent honesty and goodness. 

Finally, even some new doughnut makers are still drawn to the simple pleasures of fried dough. Jessi DiBartolomeo, General Manager of the popular Doughnut Vault in Chicago, says, “We don't ever plan on venturing into trendier flavors, like bacon or Sriracha, because those types of flavors (while delicious!) would signal a move from our focus on a classic and simple style to something that is more mass produced and trendy.” But DiBartolomeo is a more positive person than I am. When asked about PSD’s prospects for longevity, DiBartolomeo said “it definitely depends on what these new stores choose to focus on. America will always want doughnuts and there will always be trends. But sticking with one thing—whether it's a classic vanilla glazed yeast doughnut or a maple bacon long john infused with whiskey—doing it really well is what tends to last.” An ambassador for fried dough in all its forms, as long as the intentions are pure. 

If the movement to keep doughnuts simple and affordable has a scripture (big “if”), it is Bob Staake’s book The Donut Chef. In it, a little girl brings two competing doughnut makers back from the brink of making flavors like “Gooey Cocoa-Mocha Silk,” but not before they risk destroying the essence of what they have ostensibly committed themselves to: “They'd lost their soul. / They'd even lost their donut hole!” The little girl brings them back to their senses, they make glazed doughnuts once more, and the people are happy. 

I accept that Vortex will never again fill Dunwell’s space with piles of glorious junk. But I’m confident that we can do better than expensive, not-very-good doughnuts. PSD will, in all likelihood, fade away in the not too distant future. We can hasten that day’s arrival if we choose to spend our money in places that understand the rich history of this great food; places that are honest with themselves and their customers about its dim prospects for being a healthy option; and, for the love of all that is holy, places that understand that old-timey dancing has no business in the same place as the almighty doughnut. 

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