Life in the centre

What is it about doughnuts? I am still as fascinated by them now as I was as a little child. I think it was the smell that enticed me then… Okay, maybe it was also the sugar sprinkled on one surface, but it could also have been the ease with which a doughnut could be carried around with one finger through its hole -a design feature which always struck me as clever. You couldn’t do it with toast -although, in fairness, I suppose if your mother was in the other room and you were quick enough, you could grab a piece of snow-white Wonder Bread fresh out of the wrapper and mash it into a paste for your pocket, and maybe even shove your finger (or tongue) through it if desired. Winnipeg kids in those days required easily portable foodstuffs because of the weather.

But I don’t want to concentrate on the doughnut’s versatility nor even about the camera obscura that my friend Russel once made through a defective doughnut hole, although the hole was part of the magic, for sure -and anyway, I’ve written about that before.[i] What interests me more is the longevity of an unlikely food. Is it more than the design, or the overly-sweet confectious cover that it wears? I mean a bun -okay, a loaf -sure, but a fried flour wheel -nope. For a start, why  the hole? Well, cooks will tell you that a wad of thick, wet dough tossed into hot oil will still be raw in the middle after the outside is cooked. But if you want to make it into more than a one-bite snack, a hole through the centre will help ensure it’s evenly cooked.[ii]

However, there is a recorded precedent for little balls of fried dough which originated in Holland at least as far back as the 17th century: oliekoecken, or oil cakes; and New York City was originally called New Amsterdam, remember[iii]. All you needed was some flour, some fat (like what covered everything on the New England whaling boats of the time) and Bob’s your uncle, eh? Then, so they wouldn’t roll overboard if the seas were rough, you could impale the results on the little handle-things on the ship’s steering wheel, or on any upright stanchions on the gunnel, and presto, doughnuts.

Do I believe that? Well, I suppose I believed in Santa Claus for a while -for quite a while, actually: you got more presents with an intact belief system. But the hole truth…? Well, the only thing that makes sense about its popularity is the hole, actually, otherwise it’s just another fried thing.

Friends notice stuff, though. “Why do you always get a doughnut with your coffee G? Every time I see you here, and until you dig into it, there it is: a hole staring at me like an eye on the plate.”

Jeremy, a long-since retired teacher, was like that: very nosey, very metaphorical, and very… weird. “It’s a bagel, Jer,” I answered, unsure whether he was just kidding, or finally needed glasses. Jeremy must be eighty by now, and when he walks, the thumping of his cane keeps time like a metronome. You can hear him coming from clear across the Food Court. You can see him coming as well with his old-man grey pants swishing around him like window curtains, his lumpy black Grateful Dead sweatshirt keeping time with his cane, and his balding head reflecting the overhead lights onto everything he passes. It’s like watching a parade approach.

He sat heavily on the seat that had been pandemic-proofed as he always pointed out. It was two metres away from mine, and as a result of the distance he assumed he had to shout at me. “Damned distancing stuff,” he grumbled to anybody within earshot, and then, no doubt satisfied that he had been heard, turned his voice on me like a cannon. “Whatever you’re eating, why in Hades would you pay for something that has a part missing?”

“The hole, you mean?”

He nodded, and temporarily blinded me with the reflection off his scalp. “I’ve never understood doughnuts,” he continued, ignoring my too confident assertion that it was a bagel. “They serve no purpose, other than holding sugar…” He paused long enough to point out the whole wheat grains sprinkled on my bagel.

“Those aren’t…” but he interrupted before I could explain that they were not sugar crystals.

“And at any rate, you’re not supposed to break doughnuts into little pieces like you always do.”

For some reason I have always had a habit of breaking my bagel into tiny fragments to make it last longer. “Why not?” I suppose it was silly to ask, but I was curious about why it seemed to bother him so much.

He shook his head admonishingly, and sighed as if I hadn’t been paying enough attention in class. “Manners,” was his reply, after sipping from his cup, and then grabbing my only napkin to wipe off the coffee he’d spilled in his lap. “An adult does not play with his food, nor apportion parts of it for burial in the ground like a squirrel… or a raven,” he added, as he thought his argument over more carefully.

I had to smile at the argument -he hadn’t used it on me before. “It just seems to last longer when I do that,” I explained. “You know, like I got more for my money.” It was a weak justification, but I felt it matched his equally weak criticism.

His eyes lit up for a moment and the rheum in them disappeared. He smiled for the first time since sitting down. “You’ve read Piaget then…?”

“Huh?” I had no idea what he was asking.

“Jean Piaget, the Swiss developmental psychologist!” he explained, and I could feel – almost see- the exclamation mark at the end of his sentence. When my expression remained unchanged, he rolled his eyes and spoke as if I was sitting with the jocks in the back row of his classroom. “Remember his drinking glass experiment?”

It was obvious by my face that I didn’t.

“Take a large drinking glass and put some water in it, and then pour that same water into a thinner, taller glass; the level looks higher in the second glass. Of course it’s the same amount of water, but the younger kids will think there’s more water in the narrower glass…” He paused and glanced at my array of bagel fragments with a twinkle in his eyes.

I sighed contentedly. You can learn so much from people if you really listen…



[iii] Ibid.


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