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Glazed and confused: The history of the New England doughnut

Plus, in praise of the sturdy old-fashioned and the ethereal French cruller.

A preview of some of Boston’s 13 best indie doughnut shops. (Video by Alex Lancial and Taylor de Lench/ Globe Staff)
A preview of some of Boston’s 13 best indie doughnut shops. (Video by Alex Lancial and Taylor de Lench/ Globe Staff)
Illustration by Ben Voldman


Unraveling the history of the New England doughnut is a sticky business. One story claims that Maine’s Elizabeth Gregory first made them in the mid-1800s with ingredients like nutmeg and lemon rind, sending them with her sailor son to ward off scurvy. It’s a nice yarn, but the doughnut actually dates back to at least 1750 in England, says Michael Krondl, author of The Donut: History, Recipes, and Lore From Boston to Berlin . The New England doughnut was likely based on a pastry called a “Hertfordshire nut,” so named because it resembled a walnut. Early Americans introduced the innovation of using chemical leaveners, though those tended to make the doughnuts burn before they were fully cooked in the middle.


And that’s where Elizabeth Gregory’s son, Hanson, comes back into the story. As specious legend has it, in 1847 he used a tin box to, as he later claimed, cut “the first hole [in a doughnut] ever seen by mortal eyes!” Asked if he was pleased with the discovery, Hanson responded “Was Columbus pleased?” — by Francis Storrs


Illustrations by Ben Voldman

IF THE FRENCH CRULLER WERE A WOMAN, she’d be a princess — the most perfect princess ever conceived. Dunkin’ Donuts conjures her in all her beauty, though to call her a “doughnut” is an insult to her station. The very word is too coarse to capture her sweet, airy delicacy, all fluted lines and honeyed gloss. Cake and yeast doughs, mere commoners among royalty, can be wrestled into any number of pedestrian doughnuts, even the staid old-fashioned, for those bakers lacking imagination. But, as her admirers will tell you, the cruller’s dough is unique to her. And although sadly she’s been more difficult to find than she once was, her scarcity only adds to her allure. What truly worth having is not worth pursuing? In this new world of candied bacon and (ugh) cronuts, she’ll remain ever cosmopolitan and classy. She is French, after all. — by Francis Storrs


IF THE OLD-FASHIONED DOUGHNUT WERE A MAN, he’d wear a rumpled tan raincoat with tan slacks. He might drive a late-model Ford, with coffee stains on the driver’s-side seat. He’s a sturdy doughnut in a world of croissants and French crullers, and proud of it. His crunchy brown exterior masks a soft core, qualities completely out of place among today’s hot pink icing and rainbow sprinkles, but the very character traits that inspire fierce devotion among his admirers. He’s never one to brag, but his friends will tell you that when it comes to dunking, there’s no doughnut in the case that stands up to a cup of hot coffee better. Sure, some people call him a bore, but he’s got a wild side. There’s even a rumor out there that he experimented with glazes and swirl toppings in the ’70s. In the end they must not have been suited him: He is old-fashioned, after all.  — by Greg Klee

Animated illustration by Ben Voldman

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