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Honor history and eat a (free) doughnut

National Doughnut Day, which is today, honors the sweet treat's role in American culture. You can thank the Salvation Army.

By Teresa Mears Jun 2, 2010 11:26AM

If ever a food deserved a national day, it's the doughnut.


Once an icon of American culture, the poor doughnut has lately been much maligned, used as an example of everything that's wrong with American food.


Friday is National Doughnut Day. Let us remember the doughnut's place in our history. Yes, there is free food involved.


National Doughnut Day is not a creation of the snack-food industry but actually started in 1938 as a fund-raiser for the Salvation Army. Women of that organization started America's complicated love affair with the doughnut during World War I. As part of their effort to bring a little bit of home to U.S. troops in France, the Salvation Army served coffee and doughnuts. We couldn't confirm that the doughnuts were actually fried in metal helmets, but it makes a nice story. Here's the recipe that was used.


So many soldiers planned to open doughnut shops after the war that the military published a book on the subject, according to John T. Edge's definitive history, "Donuts: An American Passion."

Exactly who invented the doughnut is up for debate. Most cultures have a variation of fried bread or cake. Wikipedia has a list of doughnut-like creations from around the world.


Dutch immigrants are often credited with creating the first American doughnuts, called "olykoeks" (oily cakes). An 1803 English book included a recipe for doughnuts in a section on American recipes. By the 1920s, machines had been invented to mass-produce doughnuts. The Chicago World's Fair in 1934 declared the doughnut "the food hit of the Century Of Progress," according to Mr. Breakfast's definitive history of the doughnut.


Some of today's popular doughnut chains were around for the first National Doughnut Day. LaMar's, a Midwestern chain, opened in 1933. Shipley Do-Nuts opened in 1936. Krispy Kreme started in 1937. Dunkin' Donuts, a relative latecomer, came along in 1950.


We may think of doughnuts as a quintessentially American food, but Canadians claim they actually eat more doughnuts per capita.


And is it doughnut or donut? CakeSpy did an extensive investigation of the two spellings and concluded it's a matter of taste.


Speaking of taste, if you're in search of the nation's best doughnuts, Serious Eats put together a National Doughnut Honor Roll in 2007.


So where can you get a free doughnut on Friday? Check your local mom-and-pop shops, if you're lucky enough to have any left. You can also get a free doughnut at participating locations of these stores:

And, if you want to send cards, you can get free National Doughnut Day e-cards. You can even get some free doughnut knit patterns from Flint Knits, though we don't know why anyone would want to knit a doughnut.


A number of Salvation Army locations are planning National Doughnut Day events to raise money to help the poor, the reason National Doughnut Day was created.


In recent decades, the doughnut has been pushed aside by the bagel and scorned by those who cringe at the sight of fat and sugar. We'll just point out that a doughnut has fewer calories than a bagel with cream cheese.


We don't advocate eating a lot of sweets, but we do believe in eating really good sweets on occasion. And doughnuts are such a piece of our past. Remember Sunday mornings when Dad brought home warm doughnuts for the family and you hadn't yet heard of calories?


In honor of National Doughnut Day, we believe it's OK to eat a doughnut. Just one, and it should be your favorite.


So what will be it be? Cake or glazed? Dunkin' Donuts or Krispy Kreme? LaMar's or Shipley's? Or does your hometown have something even better?


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