Donuts, America’s patriotic junk food

A century ago, not long after United States entered WW1, the Salvation Army deployed hundred of volunteers to France to soothe and bolster American troops. The men were homesick. They were hungry. They wanted a slice of apple pie. But that of course wasn’t possible. The many indignities of war include this undeniable one: A foxhole is a terrible place to bake.

So the Salvation Army volonteers improvised. And the came up with the treat that became integral to the American junk food diet: the doughnut.

In the theatre of war there are no bakeries. There are definitely no deep fries. So volunteers fried up dough in soldiers helmets. Then they added the most important ingredient: the powdered sugar. The result was delicious. These volunteers, mostly women, became known as “Doughnut Lassies”.

“Doughnut Lassies” and troops. (Courtesy of Salvation Army)

Doughnuts were so popular, that when the war was finally over and the troops came home, the government produced a guide to help veterans open doughnut shops. These days, Americans devour millions, maybe billions of doughnuts a year. They even have own holiday: “National Doughnut Day”. You might think of the National Doughnut Day as the time to get free doughnuts. But it actually started as a way to remember the sacrifices of World War One veterans and the Salvation Army volunteers who comforted them.

But the reason doughnuts are so popular today isn’t just their role in winning the war. It also because of the Great Depression. When the economic downturn hit, the doughnut industry worried they might be in trouble. So they made a strategic decision. The industry aligned itself with Hollywood and the glamour of movie stars. Film makers put doughnuts in their movies. Frank Capra put doughnuts in his movies. There’s that scene in “It Happened One Night” where Clark Gable teaches, as Edge puts it, “doughnut etiquette.” On Shirley Temple’s list of works is this: “Dora’s Dunking Donuts.” Laurel and Hardy posed for photos holding doughnuts. And it worked. Doughnuts survived the Great Depression. Their nutritional value maybe questionable. But the patriotic value is certain. When you eating a doughnut, you eating a piece of American history. The history of American soldiers fighting for whats right, fuelled of what became the country’s favorite pastry.

In the 1950’s, donut shops were some of the first food businesses commonly open late at night. They became hot spots for police working the night shift since it gave them a place to grab a snack, fill out paper work, or even just take a break. This is why donuts became associated with cops.


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