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OBSERVATIONS : Food : Cosmic Dough : The Doughnut Is Everywhere an Object of Meditation, Jokes and Sweet Satisfaction

January 10, 1988|SALLY LEVITT STEINBERG

IT'S TRUE THAT I am not loyal to baseball, hot dogs, Cokes, pretzels and so forth. "So? How could you be American?" they ask. In defense, I insist that, while I may not be an eater of franks in bleachers, when it comes to food, my heritage entitles me to a place in American history. My grandfather invented the doughnut machine. He made doughnuts America's snack, part of office breaks, Halloween parties with doughnuts on strings and doughnut-plattered political rallies. Doughnuts are basic American equipment, like sneakers.

I come from immigrants who crossed the sea in steerage, crowded together like animals to flee persecution. They fled to the land of Indians and beer, then fled that land to fry cakes in a pot in Harlem and then made a machine for that cake people loved. They got doughnuts out of the frying pans of prairie women and into coffee shops and Coney Island; into prisons, where inmates barter them for cigarettes, and into the White House for a contest to see which senator could eat the greatest number. My friends knew that my grandfather was the Doughnut King. It was like being the descendant of Old King Cole.

On the first day of first grade I wore a red-and-green plaid dress above my patent-leather Mary Janes and white socks, and on my white collar I wore something that made me different. A pin. It was yellow-and-brown plastic in the shape of a cup of steaming plastic coffee, with a plastic doughnut poised above, ready for dunking. This meant I was a genuine Doughnut Dunker, a member of the National Doughnut Dunking Assn., formed when an actress dropped a doughnut into her coffee by accident and other celebrities copied her, starting a fad.

Though my ancestors did not come over with the Pilgrims, I can lay claim to a Mayflower in my past, even if it is the name of the chain of doughnut shops my grandfather started. We always had boxes of Mayflower doughnuts, complete with square-rigged ship, lying around our kitchen. I thought doughnuts were important, and I saw I was not the only one.

I saw the lines outside the Mayflower shops waiting for doughnuts coming out hot from the machine--confetti-colored or fuzzy cinnamon brown or Snow White powdered-sugar doughnuts. I saw people with their hands behind their backs, mouths waving to catch the doughnut, like seals in the zoo trying to catch the ball. Doughnuts must be worth it, I concluded as a child, or grown-ups would not stoop to such foolishness.

And then there was the jingle on the Mayflower box. It was a quaint insignia of two men dressed as old-fashioned jesters, facing away from each other, with my grandfather's motto in curly, old-style print between them:

As you ramble on thru Life, Brother,

Whatever be your Goal,

Keep your Eye upon the Doughnut

And not upon the Hole.

One of the jesters is smiling at a fat doughnut with a small hole; the other is frowning at a thin doughnut encircling a large, airy hole. My grandfather found this motto, the Optimist's Creed, as it is called, inside a cheap picture frame he happened to buy in a dime store. He adopted it as his philosophy of life. Doughnuts, I thought, must be fairly basic if they had made it into a motto where life's choice was drawn in the shape of a doughnut.

The doughnut has been here for the length and breadth of our history, from whaling days to world wars, from redskin to doughboy, unearthed in Indian burial mounds and written into the records of the early settlers in the colonies. Doughnuts made their way across the country like pioneers in Conestoga wagons, all the way from Maine to Times Square to Hollywood. They have inspired tales about seafarers, cartoons about dreams, Burns and Allen comedy routines. Doughnuts fed the famished in Depression days, and now they are free food for the homeless. There was the Doughnut Tower of the first World's Fair and the Doughnut Dunking Assn., with tens of thousands of official dunkers led by people like Red Skelton and Jimmy Durante; Admiral Richard E. Byrd took doughnuts to the polar regions, and Eddie Cantor took them to the movies.

Since World War I, when soldiers and Salvation Army girls fried doughnuts in garbage cans and stacked them on bayonets, this beloved object of the masses has been part of the eternal snack-ability of America, belonging to grass-roots as well as fast-food culture. This is America, where you have Doughnut Ring Toss, where the Texas church youth made the biggest doughnut ever (74 pounds' worth). While quiche and pasta and croissant fight for neon, the old standby, the doughnut, eaten on the park bench, anchors the American to his soil. It is the food of the heartland.

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