OBSERVATIONS : Food : Cosmic Dough : The Doughnut Is Everywhere an Object of Meditation, Jokes and Sweet Satisfaction

IT'S TRUE THAT I am not loyal to baseball, hot dogs, Cokes, pretzels and so forth. "So? How could you be American?" they ask. In defense, I insist that, while I may not be an eater of franks in bleachers, when it comes to food, my heritage entitles me to a place in American history. My grandfather invented the doughnut machine. He made doughnuts America's snack, part of office breaks, Halloween parties with doughnuts on strings and doughnut-plattered political rallies. Doughnuts are basic American equipment, like sneakers.

I come from immigrants who crossed the sea in steerage, crowded together like animals to flee persecution. They fled to the land of Indians and beer, then fled that land to fry cakes in a pot in Harlem and then made a machine for that cake people loved. They got doughnuts out of the frying pans of prairie women and into coffee shops and Coney Island; into prisons, where inmates barter them for cigarettes, and into the White House for a contest to see which senator could eat the greatest number. My friends knew that my grandfather was the Doughnut King. It was like being the descendant of Old King Cole.

On the first day of first grade I wore a red-and-green plaid dress above my patent-leather Mary Janes and white socks, and on my white collar I wore something that made me different. A pin. It was yellow-and-brown plastic in the shape of a cup of steaming plastic coffee, with a plastic doughnut poised above, ready for dunking. This meant I was a genuine Doughnut Dunker, a member of the National Doughnut Dunking Assn., formed when an actress dropped a doughnut into her coffee by accident and other celebrities copied her, starting a fad.

Though my ancestors did not come over with the Pilgrims, I can lay claim to a Mayflower in my past, even if it is the name of the chain of doughnut shops my grandfather started. We always had boxes of Mayflower doughnuts, complete with square-rigged ship, lying around our kitchen. I thought doughnuts were important, and I saw I was not the only one.

I saw the lines outside the Mayflower shops waiting for doughnuts coming out hot from the machine--confetti-colored or fuzzy cinnamon brown or Snow White powdered-sugar doughnuts. I saw people with their hands behind their backs, mouths waving to catch the doughnut, like seals in the zoo trying to catch the ball. Doughnuts must be worth it, I concluded as a child, or grown-ups would not stoop to such foolishness.

And then there was the jingle on the Mayflower box. It was a quaint insignia of two men dressed as old-fashioned jesters, facing away from each other, with my grandfather's motto in curly, old-style print between them:

As you ramble on thru Life, Brother,

Whatever be your Goal,

Keep your Eye upon the Doughnut

And not upon the Hole.

One of the jesters is smiling at a fat doughnut with a small hole; the other is frowning at a thin doughnut encircling a large, airy hole. My grandfather found this motto, the Optimist's Creed, as it is called, inside a cheap picture frame he happened to buy in a dime store. He adopted it as his philosophy of life. Doughnuts, I thought, must be fairly basic if they had made it into a motto where life's choice was drawn in the shape of a doughnut.

The doughnut has been here for the length and breadth of our history, from whaling days to world wars, from redskin to doughboy, unearthed in Indian burial mounds and written into the records of the early settlers in the colonies. Doughnuts made their way across the country like pioneers in Conestoga wagons, all the way from Maine to Times Square to Hollywood. They have inspired tales about seafarers, cartoons about dreams, Burns and Allen comedy routines. Doughnuts fed the famished in Depression days, and now they are free food for the homeless. There was the Doughnut Tower of the first World's Fair and the Doughnut Dunking Assn., with tens of thousands of official dunkers led by people like Red Skelton and Jimmy Durante; Admiral Richard E. Byrd took doughnuts to the polar regions, and Eddie Cantor took them to the movies.

Since World War I, when soldiers and Salvation Army girls fried doughnuts in garbage cans and stacked them on bayonets, this beloved object of the masses has been part of the eternal snack-ability of America, belonging to grass-roots as well as fast-food culture. This is America, where you have Doughnut Ring Toss, where the Texas church youth made the biggest doughnut ever (74 pounds' worth). While quiche and pasta and croissant fight for neon, the old standby, the doughnut, eaten on the park bench, anchors the American to his soil. It is the food of the heartland.

I have been all over the country searching out doughnuts. I have watched red winter-wheat kernels go from boxcar to silo in a flour mill dating back to gristmill days. I have wandered around the country where Potawatomi Indians met trappers on their journey up the Milwaukee River in canoes. Doughnuts are everywhere. Their eyes stare up at me from a tray at a doctor's office. On a ledge in a gas station there is a half-eaten doughnut, a fossil. People are walking around the city streets on New Year's Eve with doughnuts in their hands for warmth. In a modern painting, a doughnut rests on the edge of a sewing machine. On a beach a sunbaked adolescent walks by with a box stuck out of his middle, held by a strap around his neck. In the shallow box are rows of plump brown doughnuts, dusted with sugar, filled with apple. "Doughnuts!" he calls to the kids who make it from lunch to dinner because of those doughnuts, fat, sugary cakes held in tissue, in hands gritty with sand, with the extra flavor of salt from the waves.

I visited a doughnut plant to see doughnuts in the making. After weaving past gyrations of outsize mixing bowls, I entered the testing area, where rows of doughnuts came off conveyor belts. The fresh, sweet, mouth-watering aroma hit hard, especially as I had not eaten that day in preparation for the doughnuts, which would be a bellyful. As I went to snatch one from a bin, on top I saw a damp, half-smoked cigar, lending the doughnuts the stale stench of a poolroom.

In a department store in Tokyo two Japanese men, Fukushima and Kawakami, fry doughnuts with chopsticks in a caldron of fat, next to seaweed and sake. The crowd thickens so you cannot see the doughnuts, loved by geisha girls in flowery kimonos and by mountainous sumo wrestlers in loincloths. Amid silks and fragile teacups and Zen rock formations and fine black ash mounds heaped to heat green leaves for the tea ceremony, the Japanese eat American doughnuts on Tokyo's Fifth Avenue, the Ginza, behind rice-paper screens, after lunches of yakitori chicken. Maybe samurai with shields, spirits of the dead with black hair flying and Kabuki actors wearing purple robes with clouds and dragons eat doughnuts, too.

Doughnuts have been my dusty corner of American life since my grandfather invented that Wonderful Almost Human Automatic Doughnut Machine. Doughnuts were around the world and around me all the time, beautiful ones in pink jackets or with red-and-silver sprinkles. But people disparage the doughnut and take it for granted.

I admit a doughnut is not a souffle. I guess I also have to admit that if they served me one for dessert in an elegant restaurant, I'd be surprised, even though probably everyone eating there likes doughnuts, which must be why they are thought of as common. Common, maybe, but a common favorite. People eat doughnuts in a shop; a girl places them on a tray. Does the girl or the cop or the nurse stop to look, to ask why people love this thing, joke about it? Why does this doughnut invite, tickle, please, suggest? What is this ring I'm ruining by biting? Why does a monk meditate on it? What makes Snoopy and Charlie Brown's conversation about doughnuts funny?

What could be more elemental than a circle of dough? What could be more dignified? Doughnuts are the stuff of dreams. Jules Feiffer's doughnut dream has become a famous cartoon, a vision of a flight up a staircase to encounter a giant doughnut. In philosophical, scientific and literary writings the doughnut shape often serves as an image for something else. Scientists describe the shape of the universe as a torus, a doughnut. That's why a Zen monk writes a meditation on doughnuts, seeing eternity in them, seeing life and death, nothing and everything, heaven and earth. Highbrow and low, serious and silly, ridiculous and sublime, the doughnut is food and thought and food for thought.

Some have wondered if it takes art, which requires subtlety and thought, to make a doughnut. Artists have painted doughnuts, sculpted them, even built them into monuments. But what about the doughnut on its own? Is the everyday doughnut a piece of cosmic art? A sort of Greek temple of food? Perhaps the doughnut--as edible embodiment of the circle, to look at, to eat--is a kind of artistic accident of nature.

Or are doughnuts mostly science, the attempt by man to create the shape in nature that is most fundamental, everywhere, in the heavens and on earth? Since there are so many circles, one day man would have wanted to invent an edible circle, according to the natural law of putting everything in the mouth.

Some say doughnuts are life itself, an endless circle, repetitive, going nowhere, going everywhere and endlessly, eternal and ephemeral.

And they always sell out.

From "The Donut Book," by Sally Levitt Steinberg. Copyright 1987 by Sally Levitt Steinberg. Reprinted with permission of Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. 1

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