While food resembling doughnuts has been found at many ancient sites, the earliest origins to the modern doughnuts are generally traced back to the olykoek (“oil(y) cake”) Dutch settlers brought with them to early New York (or New Amsterdam). These doughnuts closely resembled later ones but did not yet have their current ring-sized shape. One of the earliest mentions of “doughnut” was in Washington Irving’s 1809 book A History of New York, from the Beginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty:
Sometimes the table was graced with immense apple-pies, or saucers full of preserved peaches and pears; but it was always sure to boast of an enormous dish 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.
The name oly koeks was almost certainly related to the oliekoek a Dutch delicacy of “sweetened cake fried in fat.”
According to anthropologist Paul R. Mullins, the first cookbook mentioning doughnuts was an 1803 English volume which included doughnuts in an appendix of American recipes. He also traces its origins to the oliekoek that arrived in America with the Dutch settlers in the early 18th century. By the mid-19th century, the doughnut looked and tasted like today’s doughnut, and was viewed as a thoroughly American food.
Hanson Gregory, an American, claimed to have invented the ring-shaped doughnut in 1847 aboard a lime-trading ship when he was 16 years old. Gregory was dissatisfied with the greasiness of doughnuts twisted into various shapes and with the raw center of regular doughnuts. He claimed to have punched a hole in the center of dough with the ship’s tin pepper box, and to have later taught the technique to his mother.
Smithsonian Magazine states that his mother, Elizabeth Gregory, “made a wicked deep-fried dough that cleverly used her son’s spice cargo of nutmeg and cinnamon, along with lemon rind,” and “put hazelnuts or walnuts in the center, where the dough might not cook through”, and called the food ‘doughnuts’.
Another theory on their origin came to light in 2013, when a recipe for “dow nuts” was found in a book of recipes and domestic tips written in 1800 by the wife of Baron Thomas Dimsdale, the recipe being given to the dowager Baroness by an acquaintance who transcribed for her the cooking instructions of a local delicacy, the “Hertfordshire nut”
The earliest known recorded usage of the term dates to an 1808 short story describing a spread of “fire-cakes and dough-nuts”. Washington Irving’s reference to “doughnuts” in 1809 in his History of New York is more commonly cited as the first written recording of the term. Irving described “balls of sweetened dough, fried in hog’s fat, and called doughnuts, or olykoeks.” These “nuts” of fried dough might now be called doughnut holes. The word nut is here used in the earlier sense of “small rounded cake or cookie”. Doughnut is the traditional spelling and still dominates even in the United States though donut is often used. At present, doughnut and the shortened form donut are both pervasive in American English.
The first known printed use of donut was in Peck’s Bad Boy and his Pa by George W. Peck, published in 1900, in which a character is quoted as saying, “Pa said he guessed he hadn’t got much appetite, and he would just drink a cup of coffee and eat a donut.” According to John T. Edge (Donuts, an American passion 2006) the alternative spelling “donut” was invented when the New York–based Display Doughnut Machine Corporation abbreviated the word to make it more pronounceable by the foreigners they hoped would buy their automated doughnut making equipment. The donut spelling also showed up in a Los Angeles Times article dated August 10, 1929 in which Bailey Millard jokingly complains about the decline of spelling, and that he “can’t swallow the ‘wel-dun donut’ nor the ever so ‘gud bred’.”
The interchangeability of the two spellings can be found in a series of “National Donut Week” articles in The New York Times that covered the 1939 World’s Fair. In four articles beginning October 9, two mention the donut spelling. Dunkin’ Donuts, which was so-named in 1950, following its 1948 founding under the name Open Kettle (Quincy, Massachusetts), is the oldest surviving company to use the donut variation; other chains, such as the defunct Mayflower Doughnut Corporation (1931), did not use that spelling. According to the Oxford Dictionary while “doughnut” is used internationally, the spelling “donut” is American. The spelling “donut” remained rare until the 1950s, and has since grown significantly in popularity; this growth in use has possibly been influenced by the spread of Dunkin’ Donuts.
National Doughnut Day
National Doughnut Day, also known as National Donut Day, celebrated in the United States of America, is on the first Friday of June each year, succeeding the Doughnut Day event created by The Salvation Army in 1938 to honor those of their members who served doughnuts to soldiers during World War I. About 250 Salvation Army volunteers went to France. Because of the difficulties of providing freshly baked goods from huts established in abandoned buildings near the front lines, the two Salvation Army volunteers (Ensign Margaret Sheldon and Adjutant Helen Purviance) came up with the idea of providing doughnuts. These are reported to have been an “instant hit”, and “soon many soldiers were visiting The Salvation Army huts”. Margaret Sheldon wrote of one busy day: “Today I made 22 pies, 300 doughnuts, 700 cups of coffee.” Soon, the women who did this work became known by the servicemen as “Doughnut Dollies”.