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.

Avast Ye Wedding Lubbers

Multnomah Falls

On a recent family excursion to Multnomah Falls, a place I’ve been too few times, I noticed a sign along the trail that I hadn’t read before, probably because I assumed it had something to do with rock formations and/or water volume as most of the signs do.

But this one was different. It described an event from September of 1995 when a boulder weighing 400 tons (according to the sign that is approximately the same weight as a school bus filled with concrete, and go ahead and disprove that) fell from the rock face next to upper Multnomah Falls, plunging 225 feet into the pool at the bottom. Upon entering the water the school bus boulder produced a 70-foot splash that washed over the observation bridge, completely dousing a wedding party that had been posing for pictures. Now, I may not care much about geology, but I am a big fan of wedding photos.

In case you haven’t been to the falls, though, let me just provide a little background. Located on Interstate 84, just outside of Portland, Multnomah Falls drops a total of 620 feet, making it the highest waterfall in the Columbia River Gorge and the second highest year-round waterfall in the United States. Between the upper and lower portion of the falls spans Benson Bridge, constructed in 1914.

And if geology is your thing, Multnomah Falls is allegedly a fascinating place to visit because rumor has it you can see something like six different lava flows, evidence of flooding that occurred thousands of years ago, and probably even some really interesting differences in rates of erosion that have led to the tiered formation of the falls and the occasional plunging school-bus-sized rock. Personally, I just care that it’s pretty.

In fact, all those impressive geological goings-on coupled with the well-placed bridge in the middle make the easily accessible Multnomah Falls an ideal spot for all your magical wedding photo needs. Then there’s the tragic and super romantic mythological accompaniment that I didn’t even mention yet.

According to one Native American legend, the chief of the Multnomah people had a beautiful and beloved daughter. He arranged for her to marry a strong young chief from the neighboring Clatsop people and planned many days of feasting and celebration during which tragedy struck. A terrible sickness descended on the wedding festivities. The only solution, as determined by an honored medicine man, was for an innocent maiden to sacrifice herself. The idea was that her sacrificial love would impress the Great Spirit and the sick would recover. When her betrothed fell ill, the young maiden took it upon herself to save her people. She climbed up to the high cliff and leapt to her death. As a token of her loving sacrifice, a spring welled up on the cliff top, the water descending as a lasting bridal gown testimony to the young maiden.

I don’t know about you, but had I gotten married in Oregon, I think we would have made the effort to get that picture. But even though the myth lends a certain wild sentimentality to the photo op, I have to wonder if it ultimately makes a lot of sense to get fancied up in tuxedoes and ball gowns and go for a hike. Assuming here that your daily wear is somewhat less formal, don’t the memories painted by such pictures just ring a little false?

Yet as anyone who has ever tried to make small talk with relative strangers for hours at a wedding reception while waiting for the bridal party to arrive knows, couples do this kind of thing all the time. In fact, my husband was a groomsman at the beginning of this summer and while I’ve not yet seen the photographic evidence, it sounds like things may have gotten a little out of hand. Let’s just say there are some modern art sculptures on an undisclosed Midwestern college campus that are probably feeling a little violated. What that has to do with the celebration of marriage, well, you’d have to ask the couple. No one else seems willing to talk about it.

So the sign at the falls got me thinking about wedding photos and it happens that a few days ago some good friends of mine celebrated their wedding anniversary. It’s one of those that I always remember not only because I was a bridesmaid (and I actually liked the dress, and yes, I have even worn it since), but also because they had the foresight to get married on International Talk like a Pirate Day.

They’re a great couple and I am honored to be featured in their wedding photos, in which I never once posed with any modern art sculptures. But as I was looking back through the pictures, I realized that along with the lined up bridal party, the first kiss as husband and wife, and the gathered family, were some of the other kinds of photos as well: the ones in which excessively well-dressed people are deliberately posed in unnaturally casual ways.

Clearly these men are pirates. You can tell by the way they are standing.

Ultimately, though, I think these are the ones I like best because it says a lot about a photographer (and how well they know the couple whose wedding they are trying to capture) and even more about the couple themselves, because if the photo didn’t somehow resonate with who they are, then it never would have made the wedding album. For my friends, their memories will forever include a nod to the internationally celebrated holiday with which they share their special day. And because of their willingness to embrace it, their friends will never forget to leave a heartfelt message on their Facebook pages: “Arr. Ye be havin a jolly anniversary ye old scurvy dogs.”

I am happy to report, too, that the Multnomah Falls wedding deluge resulted in no major injuries. In an interview after the wedding, the bride said of the event, “We got the tragedy out of the way and now we’re home free.” That’s a great attitude that I assume has led to many years of happily ever after. I just hope someone managed to snap a picture of the splash.

Just a bunch of well-dressed people casually hanging out in a courtyard, cuz that’s how we roll.

Wedding photos by Layne Aumann Photography.

These wedding pictures are used by permission and may not appear elswhere without consent, lest ye be wantin to walk the plank.