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The Death Of the Doughnut

The edible metaphor for life's circular rhythms, the doughnut has become America's forbidden treat

By Christina Waters

THE DOUGHNUT, once a ubiquitous folly, now a culinary no-no, has been an American obsession since the very beginning. Who does not love this sensuous fistful of unctuous rotundity? Is there a deep-seated Freudian longing that cannot be satisfied--or at least sublimated--one bite into the soft, crimson heart of a pliant jelly doughnut?

The clear answer is "No!." If it hurts, a doughnut can fix it. Two doughnuts can buy you if not love then at least a half-hour of denial. The soft tumescence of a fresh glazed doughnut--its haughty sheen of transparent sugar, its frankly erotic inner corridors of yeasty possibility--has done much to bolster the collective American ego. But what's this? Has the mighty, democratic pastry-of-the-people lost its allure? Is this deep-fried bit of oral escapism in danger of--shudder--banishment to the same gastronomic gulag that now imprisons Vienna sausages, biscuits & gravy and instant coffee? Has the doughnut used up its 15 minutes and become, in a word, passé?

Travel back with me to yesteryear (a.k.a. the '50s) when there was a law requiring every American policeman to be issued a doughnut addiction along with his badge and his gun. The early days of television taught us that the flatfoots on the beat, the men in blue, had to have their daily interlude with a doughnut, much as French businessmen enjoyed afternoon trysts with their mistresses. In fact, legend has it that urban cops couldn't even think, much less catch crooks, without first (or simultaneously) savoring a few contemplative bites of doughnut.

Children were placated with doughnuts, those happy feminine shapes pleasing the hands as much as the mouth. The doughnut kept them amused as well as fortified. While hugely low-tech, the doughnut is quintessentially hands-on. Consider that it can be used as a looking glass, an edible porthole to imaginary worlds. We can even take big bites out of its corpulent circumference while leaving intact that magic window. Modest in size, the doughnut never fills kids up so much that they can't eat their dinner. But the doughnut is so friendly, so unassuming in its simplicity, that children welcome it as a friend.

Lately the domain of the doughnut has come under fire. While all of us are closet consumers of the primal snack, we are reluctant to reveal this to our arriviste colleagues. (In parts of San Francisco, the word "doughnut" is never spoken aloud.) The reluctance to confess our inner desires is fueled by the terrible revelation of the doughnut's carbo incorrectitude. Once--when we were up at 4am milking the cows before plowing the back forty--consuming fats and starches was not, I repeat NOT, considered a criminal action. A few decades ago, it was not considered a breach of the social contract to indulge in foods lacking Mediterranean names. It was the Time of Bacon.

That was then. Now we have turned away from the True Food, and used high calorie count and deep-fat frying as our collective excuse. The doughnut was unmasked by health fanatics for what it was (in its corporeal body, though surely not its spiritual essence)--an inexpensive, easy-to-eat delivery system for ungodly amounts of oil, flour and sugar, and did I say they also are loaded with saturated fats? Joseph Conrad might have been considering the nutritional infrastructure of the doughnut when he has Kurtz remark: "The horror, the horror." Indeed.

Well, anyone not in a coma knows damn well that Americans--especially those in possession of cell phones, SUVs and a time-share in Tuscany--cannot and will not abide anything that has been deep-fried. You know, immersed in hot fat until the interior has expanded into something like an edible orgasm and the exterior has achieved a crispness usually found only after a few tabs of Viagra. Ergo, the doughnut became a forbidden substance. And worse, unfashionable. If we were indulging, we sure as hell weren't talking about it. We might still stand in front of those diminishing doughnut racks, eyeing the chocolate crullers and considering just how much hard time at the gym would be required to work it off. But the math always favors the Nancy Reagan solution, and reluctantly we just say no.

It has come to this. And for what I am about to reveal you will need to be sitting down. In a small village by the sea in central California, there is a certain Starbucks. No big news, you think--there are Starbucks on the moons of Jupiter by now. However, I ask you to consider this particular scene. Over at a table on the left are huge men in overalls, fueling up on caffeine before they hit the work site. OK, you think. This is the postmodern era, and grown men are allowed some quality schmooze time in a decorator setting. But no, I need you to look over at the table on the right. Yes, that one. Here is a sight that would have sent Joe Friday into intensive care. There they are, three of Capitola's finest--uniformed men from the sheriff's office--swilling triple mochas with lowfat milk and consuming (gasp!) scones.

So this is what it has come to. Where once a no-frills, 100 percent he-man sugar doughnut with sprinkles would have been washed down with good ol' American tasteless brown liquid, these law enforcement officers have taken the designer route.

Abandoning the ancient code of the doughnut, they are carbo-loading on scones, the poseur of the coffeehouse, the pretender to the doughnut throne. Lattes and lowfat carrot muffins--lowfat, mind you--are actually sanctioned by men in uniform. Is it any wonder that terrorists are having their way with us? America is under fire, no question. But from within! First we let go of the doughnut, and then next thing you know, there will be a Russian in the White House!

We can only prophecy that once the scone thing fades away, the doughnut will return. But not as we once knew it, oh no. It will be Wolfgang Pucked to a fare-thee-well. Nigiri truffle oil cake doughnuts. Cinnamon cilantro wraps filled with raspberry jelly. Glazed chocolate salsa doughnuts. And of course, we predict the new designer darling, the cardamom hummus doughnut with its own dipping sauce of fennel tapenade.

Courage! Hope is still alive in the Midwest and northeast of our great land. There, Dunkin' Doughnuts shops flourish--part day-care centers for emerging felons, part fantasy pit-stops for the bored and the restless. There, at least, the True Doughnut still rules.

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From the July 3-10, 2002 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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