Vive le Donut!

1894 brought a great deal of political strife to the nation of France, which became deeply divided over the false conviction of Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish French army captain accused with dubious evidence of passing military secrets to Germany. Dreyfus was finally exonerated in 1906, but by then the incident had already caused the fallout of former colleagues and the rise of an intense newspaper rivalry, which spawned the greatest bicycle race the world has ever known.

This is my game face.

I refer of course to the Tour de Donut in Staunton, Illinois, which has been held annually in July since 1989 as an alternative to the Tour de France. That other silly little French bicycle event has been going on since 1903 when the then newly founded French newspaper L’Auto sought to surpass the previously established Le Vélo by creating its own sensational event and then scooping its rival.

The plan worked. As the circulation of L’Auto grew, Le Vélo went out of business, and with the exception of a few missed years for world wars, the Tour de France has been going strong ever since, as the original and most famous multi-stage bike race in the world. You may have even heard of it.

There was a little trial and error at the beginning, figuring out where the course would go, how many stages it would consist of, how the winner would be determined, and whether or not the bulk of the racing should occur in the dark of night to make violent sabotage easier. It was eventually decided that no, the stages should probably be held in the daylight hours, which has significantly cut down on the cyclist beatings.

Incidences of violence and cheating are rare among the participants of the Tour de Donut, as they are mostly happy and hopped up on sugar.

The rules have changed a lot through the years, as has the course, with the current event (ongoing as I type this) visiting four countries in twenty-one stages and covering about 2080 miles, quite a few of which are mountainy.  

The Tour de Donut has changed course a few times, too, fluctuating between thirty and thirty-six miles through the small town of Staunton and into the surrounding countryside containing a couple of smaller towns, corn fields, and occasionally frustrating hills. It’s a tough ride, for tough people, who like donuts.

Like its French counterpart, Tour de Donut is a multi-stage race, with the ends of stage one and two each marked by donut stops, offering the most serious competitors the opportunity to gain a five-minute advantageous adjustment to their total race time for each donut consumed. The final stage ends at the finish line where cyclists are greeted with much fanfare, awards ceremony, and usually some leftover donuts.

I ride for the tee shirt. And the donuts.

It’s a fun event, and with often more than six times the number of competitors of the race that inspired it, the Donut’s popularity far exceeds the Tour de France. I think that’s mostly because of the donuts. Also, it may be a slightly less challenging race and so might be more accessible to the average casual bike rider.

I have participated in the Tour de Donut twice, once about eleven years ago and then again last Saturday. This year’s thirty-four-mile course started in the rain, with gusty wind, and much celebration. Citizens of Staunton and donut enthusiasts lined the streets with encouraging signs, cowbells, and inflatable donut décor.

By the time it was over, the rain had let up, the air had warmed, and I had a belly full of donuts and a tee shirt to prove that I had participated in the greatest bicycle race the world has ever known.

The Magic of Nothing

Ship's Steering Wheel

This past week, Hurricane Sandy met up with her blustery friends from the north and the west to pound the east coast of the US. And as cleanup efforts continue an equally terrifying political storm looms on the horizon as we finally get to elections next week. In the midst of all the turmoil, it’s difficult to know exactly where to turn for a blog topic. So what I have decided to do this week is to offer a moment of stress relief during this relative calm between the storms by writing about nothing.

Specifically, I want to talk about the invention of the “nothing” that occupies the center of a traditional American doughnut. Though versions of doughnuts have been around for centuries and can be found throughout the world, the round doughnut with a hole in the middle has become largely an American tradition since it was introduced, most likely by the Dutch. This is one piece of history on which no one can really be sure, but one story does stand out as the clear fan favorite.

At the age of sixteen, a young Dutchman named Hanson Gregory set out for a life at sea. Like most successful young men, Gregory had a mother who loved him and worried about him, probably would have even struck out into the world with him if she could have, but because a young man needs the space to make his own way she did the next best thing. She cooked up a bunch of his favorite pastries (olykoek or “oily cakes”) and sent them with him. And like great moms everywhere, she also sent along the recipe.

Young Gregory gave his mother’s recipe to his cook and set about his ship duties. Life was good. He was doing his own thing, but could still enjoy a taste of home. Then on June 22, 1847, a terrible storm rose up and Gregory, olykoek in hand, had to make a decision. Either he could grab the ship’s wheel with both hands and fight to keep the boat on a safe course, but sacrifice his tasty snack in the process or he could eat his olykoek and possibly sacrifice the ship and the lives of its crew.

The clever young man did the only thing there was to do. He took his olykoek and plunked it down one of the wheel spokes to secure it. His pastry now safe, he grabbed the wheel with all his might and saved the ship.

Doughnut (Photo credit: Images of Sri Lanka – Sequential Shots)

The early olykoek was pretty much just a ball of dough fried in pork fat which often cooked unevenly, leaving a gooey center. What Hanson Gregory discovered during that fateful storm was that an olykoek with a hole in the middle, tasted better than the original and so he asked his cook to prepare them that way from then on. The doughnut as we know it today was born.

The doughnut really took off in America, though, when, in 1920, New York businessman Adolph Levitt invented the first doughnut-producing machine. His mass produced, holey, pastries received the label “Hit Food of the Century of Progress” at the 1934 World’s Fair in Chicago. We Americans have loved our doughnuts ever since and the proof is the success of chains such as Dunkin Donuts, launched in 1948 and Krispy Kreme Doughnuts, which got its start in 1936, as well as the rise of smaller doughnut boutiques throughout the nation, where one can often sample the best and strangest the doughnut industry has to offer.

On a recent trip to Portland, my sons and I visited one such doughnut shop. Voodoo Doughnuts has been a downtown oddity in Portland, OR (a city known for downtown oddities) since 2003.

Though it is possible to order a traditional glazed doughnut, the more than 90 doughnut varieties on the menu also include some truly bizarre options such as the Tangfastic. Sadly I was not brave enough to try that one, but the varieties we tasted were delicious. The boys chose chocolate-frosted cake doughnuts while I went for the signature voodoo doll doughnut, complete with a pretzel rod pin through the chest and red jelly filling that, like the hole, effectively addresses the concern of the underdone middle.

The doughnuts are good and the atmosphere is charmingly weird (you can get legally married there if, for some reason, you want to), but what I like most about Voodoo Doughnuts is their motto: “The magic is in the Hole!”

And they’re not wrong because if we learn anything from the heroic tale of Hanson Gregory, it is that this “nothing” in the middle of the doughnut, is really quite something. So as we take a deep breath in this semi-calm we have between storms here in the US, let’s just try to remember that after the ship has been righted and the undercooked dough has been scraped off the steering wheel, great things can come from some of life’s biggest storms, even if those great things might seem at first like nothing at all.