A slow slip into madness while researching an article about doughnuts.
Written by Nathan Myers
After 52 hours, I found the olykoeks. Lots of them. Glistening in the predawn mist. 4 a.m. Dead phone. Dead feet. Dead brain. And doughnuts. Most important meal of the day.
It’s been a long night. Or two nights, really. But I’m here now.
Did you know the earliest recipe for fried cakes dates back to 1485? A German text called “Kuchenmeister” (“Master of the Kitchen”).
The sign outside says CLOSED. The smell says otherwise. The door is unlocked. I stand in the fluorescent hum inhaling the sugary air. Doughnut air.
Ninety-six percent of Americans say they “love” doughnuts. But I’m in the three percent that say they’re just okay. So much cake. For breakfast?
But standing here now …
My brain throbs with doughnut trivia. News stories from National Donut Day. Listicles to clickbait my eyeballs. And Wikipedia provides the complete molecular structure of doughnuts, with an animated gif of the phosphate molecules responsible for the emulsifying properties of lecithin in egg yolk. (Meanwhile, the “Health Effects” section simply reads: “Doughnuts are unhealthy.”)
There are also entomological debates on the usage of “doughnut” versus “donut;” stories about the Dutch settlers who first brought their traditional olykoek recipes to New Amsterdam (aka New York) in the early 1700s; and the tale of a New England sailor, Gregory Hansen, who told The Washington Post in 1907 that he was the one who first cut out the gooey center, but it was really his mom Eleanor’s recipe and she used to put walnuts there (hence the dough-NUT).
All this scribbled in my research notebook. No idea what to do with it.
Now an elderly Asian woman emerges from a backroom piled with stainless steel machinery. She’s carrying a tray of glazed breakfast cakes, which she places in a glass display case, then picks up a pair of plastic tongs and a pink cardboard box. She smiles and nods to the display.
I am reminded how this all began.
“Americans eat more doughnuts than any country in the world,” I told my friend Luke.
We’re playing pool, but I pull out my notebook of research and read to him:
“Two-hundred-and-one million doughnuts per year. That’s a $7.5 billion dollar industry with 3.4 percent year-on-year growth.”
Luke is unimpressed. “My dude, you see any red-blooded Americans behind the counter of your local doughnut shop?”
Luke’s a know-it-all. Always Googling some shit.
He just streamed this documentary called “The Donut King” about a guy named Ted Ngoy, a Cambodian refugee who fled the Khmer Rouge genocide in the 1970s and within a few years built a doughnut empire in Los Angeles. Went toe-to-toe with Big Doughnut dynasties like Winchell’s, Dunkin’ and Krispy Kreme. He kept sponsoring other refugees to move to LA and open franchises for him. Though Ngoy eventually lost his vast fortune to Vegas bookies, today LA has the most doughnut shops of anywhere, including 2,500 owned by Cambodian nationals.
“He’s the guy who’s responsible for the whole pink box thing,” concludes Luke.
I’m writing all this down. The bar is empty. It’s closed, in fact. Luke knows the owner and has after-hours privileges. He also keeps feeding me mushrooms each time I scratch. “Shroom tax,” he calls it.
“So what’s the most expensive doughnut in the world?” Luke asks, scattering balls across the table.
I don’t even have to look. “It’s dipped in edible gold and costs over $1,000.”
“What’s the biggest?”
“It was a jelly doughnut, 16 feet wide and 16 inches tall. The thing weighed 1.7 tons.”
“How about the smallest?”
“No one knows,” I say. “But there’s a lot of funny YouTube videos claiming it.”
“What’s the point of all this trivia?” Luke asks. “Anyone can Google factoids on command. Just ask the great and powerful Oz behind the curtain of Google. Everyone knows everything now. So no one really knows anything.”
Americans eat more doughnuts than any country in the world.
I scratch my shot and pay the tax.
“But you,” he continues, “you’re supposed to go deeper, right? Shouldn’t you be, like, trying to discover the soul of the American doughnut?”
We shoot pool in silence for a while. Pondering the soul of the American doughnut. Knowing nothing. My fabulous sandcastle of doughnut knowledge disappearing with the tide.
“Or maybe you should just make a bunch of crazy doughnut art on Midjourney instead.”
“Midjourney? What’s that?”
“It’s this crazy artificial intelligence software on Discord,” he says. “It’ll blow your mind.”
“What does that have to do with doughnuts?”
“What does anything have to do with anything, my dude,” he says, pressing a baggie into my hand and heading for the door.
Then he stops.
“Any society obsessed with doughnuts is clearly on the brink of collapse,” he says. “They’re not even really food.”
Take my advice, dear Whalebone. Do not go anywhere near the Midjourney Discord. Don’t even say those words.
I left that bar and decided that I would not slumber until I had located the soul of the American doughnut. Or something. I walked and walked. And as I walked, I logged into the Discord channel known as Midjourney, tumbling down the rabbit hole.
/Imagine a library with doughnuts instead of books.
You type in these prompts. Whatever the hell you want. And the Midjourney AI instantly cooks up various options, then you quickly tune them into these fabulous, impossible works of art.
/Imagine Leonardo da Vinci’s design sketch of a doughnut.
/Imagine Vincent van Gogh glazing “Starry Night” onto a doughnut.
Walking and typing, I keep my prompts doughnut-themed, and each time the software dreams up these detailed renderings in the style of great artists or classical themes and styles. Anything you ask. Never questions. Never complains. Instant creativity.
I feel like a total genius and a worthless hunk of meat. We’ve always known computers can out-think humans in terms of calculation, computation and spell-checking … but I’d thought creativity was the last bastion of mankind’s evolutionary dominion.
I was wrong.
Keep walking. Beyond the strip malls. Past the suburbs. Over the train tracks. Out where houses have actual yards. And then on to where the yards often lack houses. Just staring at my screen in disbelief.
/Imagine Homer Simpson as Jesus, eating a doughnut.
/Imagine a tarot card for the meaning of doughnuts.
The sun rose and fell. Feet blistered and went numb. Night fell and the moon rose. And suddenly my world went black.
Darkness. Nothingness. It took me a moment to comprehend …
My phone was dead.
I looked around. No idea where I am. Or how to get back. No Google Maps. No Uber. I can’t even Tweet, “I’m an idiot.”
I had wandered too far, dear Whalebone. I had lost my way.
And at this moment an urban coyote, big as a German shepherd, comes sauntering down the sidewalk towards me. It slows and stops, so that we’re both standing on opposite edges of the yellow pool cast by the streetlight above.
The coyote looks me dead in the eye. Hunches his back. Bears down. And takes a big shit there on the sidewalk.
And then he’s gone.
The average American eats 63 donuts per year.
To deny yourself sleep, dear Whalebone, is to deny yourself dreams. And if you deny yourself dreams, your dreams will rebel. They will rise up, without your consent, and mutiny upon your brain.
The first Friday in June is National Doughnut Day, started in 1938 by the Chicago Salvation Army during the Great Depression.
I’d been ignoring the signs for hours. Tiny gaps in the timeline. Tears in the fabric of reality. Ghosts on the peripheral. But this coyote incident was as real as they come. And that’s what scared me most.
During WWI, the “lassies” of the Salvation Army served doughnuts to soldiers. Hence the name, “dough boys.”
My phone was dead, but I still had my notebook. So I continued walking, and reading doughnut facts to myself as though they were the last rungs of reality to which I might cling.
I needed to get back.
If you eat one doughnut a day, you can eat one ton of donuts (2,000 lbs) in 5.5 years.
I’m quickening my pace towards the dull glow of suburban light somewhere up ahead.
Leah Shutkever holds the record for most jam doughnuts consumed in three minutes. Ten.
And first thing I see, approaching the strip mall, is the big bright double-D’s of a newly minted Dunkin’ Donuts franchise.
Divine intervention. Or more hallucination. Maybe it’s just that doughnut shops are the only thing open at 4 a.m.
A mere 20 yards from the door, I stop to watch a young, redheaded teenager arrive in his Honda Civic. He gets out, then struggles to untangle his headphones cable from his blue work apron. It’s quite an event. The struggle goes on for a full minute. When he finally frees himself, he stomps the apron to the ground, climbs back in the Civic, and speeds away from the mall.
Further along, deeper into the darkened mall, I see another illuminated sign reading simply: Donuts.
The sign says CLOSED. The smell says otherwise. The door is unlocked. I stand in the fluorescent hum inhaling the sugary air. Doughnut air.
The old woman fills my pink box. I pay and ask the woman if I can watch her make her doughnuts. “Like, back there,” I say.
She looks at me for a moment, then makes a quick swipe motion with her hand and heads back into the kitchen. I follow her back, carrying my box of doughnuts.
The room is cramped and busy. I sit on a stool in the corner and eat a chocolate sprinkle doughnut as she pulls fried cakes from the grease traps. So sweet it brings tears to my mouth. A machine behind her is mixing a large vat of dough, which she pours into a huge bowl. Another machine squirts out the rounded dough globs onto a conveyor belt and into the grease. Everything all at once.
She drops freshly cooked doughnuts into melted chocolate, makes a small twist, and voila: icing. Some get sprinkles. Some don’t. She’s sifting powders.
Sprinkling cinnamon, sugar, nuts, Oreos, colored sprinkles. A turkey baster shoots jelly inside some cakes. She’s quick. She’s efficient. Melting chocolate. Mixing ingredients. Adding food coloring. Toppings. It’s hypnotic to watch. Masterful.
I finish my glazed old-fashioned and move to the powdered jelly. I push the entire thing into my mouth. Red jam drips down my cheeks. I breathe through my nose.
All the while, the woman keeps shuttling trays of treats to the outside display and servicing the trickle of customers as they appear. Neighborly chit-chat. They seem to know her.
And as I’m passing the register, a uniformed police officer enters the store. I feel panic. “I’m writing a story about doughnuts!” I blurt out. “The soul of the American doughnut. It’s here. It’s right back there.”
He’s a bit heavyset, even beneath the body armor. Regulation mustache. Aviator shades this early in the morning. He studies me for a short moment, then turns his attention to the old woman to place his order. One jelly, one coffee. Black.
I scurry to a table in the back corner. A linoleum school chair bolted to the wall. I wrap my arms around the pink cardboard box.
The sun is rising. The world is waking up. And I am eating doughnuts. Most important meal of the day.