The Delicious Democratic Symbolism of…Doughnuts?

Colorful donuts with different decorations
"Donuts. Is there anything they can't do?"
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There’s just something about donuts. And not just the rarefied gourmet kind, or even the pretty kind, but doughnuts, those greasy, humble sweets. It turns put a doughnut isn’t just pastry perfection. For James I. Deutsch, the food is one of the United States’ most symbolic.

They have plenty of predecessors, including their European counterparts like French beignets, Italian zeppole, and German Berliners. Deutsch found the first American literary reference in an 1809 text by Washington Irving, and reports of a doughnut shop near New York’s Wall Street as far back as the 1670s. But before World War I, they don’t seem to have been a bona fide food craze.

The Great War changed that, in part because of the doughnuts fed to American soldiers by Salvation Army volunteers—most of them women—who made and served million of doughnuts. (It’s still unclear if the term “doughboy” has to do with the craze.) When the doughboys did come home, they brought a taste for doughnuts with them, writes Deutsch. Technological innovations that made it simpler to make and fry the pastries helped, too.

One scholar finds democracy in everything from the names of early doughnut shops, to references in classic Hollywood films that paint the food as the rotund champion of the American working man.

Soon doughnuts were growing in popularity each year, surging during World War II thanks to clever marketing and hungry stomachs, then becoming truly mainstream with the introduction of doughnut chains like Dunkin’ Donuts, Winchell’s, and others.

Deutsch meditates not just on how yummy doughnuts are, but on their meaning. It goes beyond just any guilty pleasure, he theorizes, or even the power of their circular shape. In some ways, doughnuts symbolize nothing less than American democracy—a food that soldiers ate in order to defend their country. Deutsch finds democracy in everything from the names of early doughnut shops, to references in classic Hollywood films that paint the food as the rotund champion of the American working man. Even John F. Kennedy’s supposed “Ich bin ein Berliner” gaffe (in reality, he didn’t accidentally refer to himself as a doughnut but rather used a legit term for a person from Berlin) can be linked to the defense of democracy.

But that undivided, circular, delicious, deep-fried link didn’t last. In the 1970s, doughnuts got competition in the form of muffins, croissants, and other fatty breakfast foods. They lost their working-class associations. And, perhaps most damningly to Deutsch, in some circles they became symbols of lazy, vindictive police who abused their authority while chowing down on a possibly perfect food.

“The former associations and symbolic representations of doughnuts with the humble John Does and scrappy Berliners of the world are being replaced by unfriendlier motifs,” wrote Deutsch in 1994, years before food trucks and hipster food revivalism added gentrification to the pastries’ problems. “Doughnuts still remain a mass food,” he concluded, “…but they are also now junkier than ever before.”

So if you want to reclaim democracy, you might want to start with a doughnut.


JSTOR Citations

« Ich Bin Ein Berliner » Dunkers and Donuts in American Popular Culture

By: James I. Deutsch

Revue française d'études Américaines, No. 60, LA CULTURE DE MASSE AUX ÉTATS-UNIS (mai 1994), pp. 135-141

Editions Belin

Erin Blakemore

Erin Blakemore is a Boulder, Colorado-based author and historian. Her debut book, The Heroine's Bookshelf (Harper), won a Colorado Book Award for Nonfiction and has been translated into Italian, Korean and Portuguese. Erin has written about history and culture and other topics for Smithsonian.com, The Washington Post, TIME, mental_floss, NPR's This I Believe, The Onion, Popular Science, Modern Farmer and other journals. You can find more of her work at erinblakemore.com.

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