The sweet history of Jews and doughnuts

Photo: As the popularity of the doughnut increased, Adolph Levitt opened a donut shop on Times Square, where people would stop and watch his new invention churn out donuts, often stopping traffic.

During Hanukkah, doughnuts or sufganiyot are a traditional food to eat. The deep-fried dessert is symbolically prepared to remind us of the miracle of the Hanukkah oil. For as long as most of us can remember, doughnuts have been around. But have you ever thought of who might have been the first person to drop raw dough in hot oil, making one of the best treats ever?

Archaeologists have turned up fossilized remains of what resemble doughnuts in prehistoric Native American settlements. Ancient Greeks and Romans fried strips of dough in olive oil and then sprinkled or spread them with ingredients to add flavor. Fried dough, either savory or sweet, is found in almost all cultures and cuisines. In the United States, doughnuts can be traced back to the 1700s, with Dutch settlers bringing their olykoeks or “oily cakes” to New Amsterdam (now New York).

And why the hole? People have long questioned how exactly the hole got in the middle of the doughnut, but the Smithsonian Magazine shares an elaborate story in its archives.

“Fast-forward to the mid-19th century and Elizabeth Gregory, a New England ship captain’s mother who made a wicked deep-fried dough that cleverly used her son’s spice cargo of nutmeg and cinnamon, along with lemon rind. Some say she made it so son Hanson and his crew could store a pastry on long voyages, one that might help ward off scurvy and colds. In any case, Mrs. Gregory put hazelnuts or walnuts in the center, where the dough might not cook through, and in a literal-minded way she called them doughnuts.
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“Her son always claimed credit for putting the hole in the doughnut. Some cynical doughnut historians maintain that Captain Gregory did it to stint on ingredients, others that he thought the hole might make it easier to digest. Still, others say that he gave the doughnut its shape when, needing to keep both hands on the wheel in a storm, he skewered one of his mom’s doughnuts on a spoke of his ship’s wheel. In an interview with the Boston Post at the turn of the century, Captain Gregory tried to quell such rumors with his recollection of the moment 50 years before: using the top of a round tin pepper box, he said, he cut into the middle of a doughnut ‘the first doughnut hole ever seen by mortal eyes.’”

A “Donut Lassie” from World War I.

The popularity of the doughnut took off after soldiers returned home from World War I. During their service in France, Salvation Army women volunteers ­– called Donut Lassies ­– would deliver doughnuts to the men on the front lines. When they returned to the U.S., they craved the breakfast pastry and more shops started selling the sweet treats.

The Jews surprisingly had quite the influence on American doughnut culture. A Jewish refugee from czarist Russian named Adolph Levitt is responsible for inventing the first automated doughnut machine in 1920. Hungry theater goers would crowd his bakery in New York and pushed him to make a gadget that churned out the tasty rings faster, and he did. The Wonderful Almost Human Automatic Donut Machine churned out doughnuts at an unprecedented pace. Doughnuts starred as the featured food of the Chicago World’s Fair in 1934, where they were touted as a symbol of American progress because they were made using a machine.
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Author Gil Marks, in his book, Encyclopedia of Jewish Food, shares a story of a Jewish man that started the largest doughnut shop chain in the world.

“William Rosenberg (1916-2002), the son of immigrant Jewish parents, was operating an industrial catering business in which he sold snacks in converted secondhand trucks near factories around his native Dorchester, MA. He noticed that doughnuts and coffee accounted for 40% of his sales, and in 1948 launched a doughnut shop called the Open Kettle in Quincy, MA, the heart of America’s original doughnut country, aiming for a blue-collar clientele…

“This unassuming store would eventually become, in Rosenberg’s words, ‘the world’s largest coffee and baked goods chain.’ Two years after opening, Rosenberg changed the store’s name to Dunkin’ Donuts and five years after that, he arranged the first franchise in nearby Worcester… By 1963, there were 100 Dunkin’ Donuts shops, and by 1979, there were 1,000.
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“By the time of Rosenberg’s death, there were more than 5,000 Dunkin’ Donuts shops, including about 40 outlets under kosher supervision, in nearly 40 countries, and serving nearly 2 million customers per day.”

The Wonderful Almost Human Automatic Donut Machine churned out doughnuts at an unprecedented pace. The machine became a local spectacle in Levitt’s neighborhood in New York City and soon, his business became a city-wide and then a country-wide phenomenon. Doughnuts starred as the featured food of the Chicago World’s Fair in 1934, where they were touted as a symbol of American progress because they were made using a machine.

Whether you are a purist and just like a plain glazed, or go more gourmet with fancy fillings and toppings, the next time you enjoy a doughnut, thank your Jewish ancestors.


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'The sweet history of Jews and doughnuts' have 2 comments

  1. December 3, 2020 @ 7:19 pm Jeffrey G.

    Thank you Mala Blomquist for such a lovely and interesting story.


    • December 4, 2020 @ 11:58 am Mala Blomquist

      Thank you! I’m glad you enjoyed it. It was fun to research and write.


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