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Sugary Dreams 

You want one. You know you do.

Wednesday, Mar 26 2003
"No good ever comes of war," states a young woman with large, wet doe eyes.

I pause, considering my options.

"What about donuts?" I suggest helpfully.

The woman blinks once, turns heel, and disappears into the crowd, leaving me to rot with my sweet, doughy thoughts.

"All right, I'll bite, how does war relate to donuts?" asks a man whose smirk suggests he might be one who embraces absurdity in the face of crisis or, at least, in the face of those reacting to crisis.

"There is nothing funny about the sugary goodness of the donut," I admonish. "The history of the donut is wrought with hostility, desperation, and bad weather." The man smiles and pulls up a seat.

The origin and creation of the first deep-fried ring are steeped in legend and conjecture, but its direct ancestor was almost certainly the product of Dutch immigrants living in Colonial New Amsterdam, now Manhattan. Flat and round, with a tendency to be slightly raw in the middle, these tasty lumps were known as olykoeks, or oily cakes, and were an affordable indulgence for the impoverished. In the mid-1800s, Elizabeth Gregory, the matriarch of a New England shipping family, improved upon the oily cakes by adding nutmeg, cinnamon, and lemon rind to the mix, and stuffing the difficult-to-cook centers with pecans. The "doughnuts," as she is said to have named them, were the chief safeguard against scurvy aboard her son's spice ship, which is where Capt. Hansen Gregory allegedly secured his place in culinary history. It was during a fierce storm, say doughnut makers, that Capt. Gregory stuck one of his mother's cakes on a spoke in the ship's wheel, thus freeing up his hands and creating the first doughnut hole. (Gregory later attributed the modification to direct and personal contact with angels, a fact that may or may not have contributed to his being burnt at the stake for witchcraft.)

In 1917, storms and adversity again enhanced the allure of the doughnut as American soldiers, bogged down by 36 consecutive days of rain outside Montiers, France, faced homesickness, cold, hunger, and fear. Their only respite? The warm, sweet deliverance of doughnuts, fried in steel helmets by the quick-thinking ladies of the Salvation Army. So effective was the morale booster that doughnuts were carried to every battlefront and Salvation Army volunteers were asked to cook them around the clock, turning their Army tents into the first 24-hour doughnut shops. Upon returning home, the soldiers, now called "doughboys," imparted their almost fanatical passion for doughnuts and rekindled the nation's taste for the workingman's pastry. By World War II, "donuts," as they were now called, were considered the official wartime food and "Donut Days" were held throughout the country to raise money for the war effort. Overseas, young enlisted men dreamed of coming home to, among other things, warm donuts.

One such man was Lucius R. Ades. Born in the portentous year of the donut, 1917, just south of San Francisco, Ades was a promising college athlete who turned into a fearless B-24 pilot, flying more than 30 missions over Europe. After receiving the Distinguished Flying Cross for valor, he returned to the Bay Area and, like many veterans, opened a donut shop.

The donuts at Lou's Living Donut Museum in San Jose are still made the way Lucius R. Ades made them in 1955, and they taste unlike any other donut I've ever had. Thick and spongy, with a delicate glaze and faint sweetness that infuses even the very center, Lou's donuts are somewhat akin to other shops' old-fashioneds, but they're fluffier and somehow more nourishing. Perhaps it's the potatoes.

"When I was a kid I used to stand at the window and watch Lou drop the donuts in the oil," says Chuck Chavira, who began washing dishes for Ades when he was 17, alongside his brother Rick. "I grew up in Lou's. It was a neighborhood institution. Our whole family would come in every Sunday after church." Now his family runs the business -- Dad filling orders, Mom folding boxes, Rick arriving at 11 p.m. every night to begin heating the oil and preparing the dough.

Every week, nearly 10,000 donuts pass through the front door of Lou's -- each made by hand in a small kitchen behind glass, just across from the counter. No one doubts the shop could sell more if the Chavira family could find time to make them, but tradition is paramount.

"Before Lou retired, someone came in and offered him $100,000 for his recipe -- not the business, just the recipe -- but he turned them down," says Chavira. "He said that if Rick and I didn't want to take over the business, he'd shut it down when he retired. It's a family business."

In deference to their predecessor, the Chaviras have kept another aspect of Lou's alive -- its military history. Models of fighter planes and portraits of soldiers and their children sit alongside a proclamation from the city of San Jose that likens a Lou's donut to the torch of hope, love, glory, and freedom. In the back room, military heirlooms and donut bric-a-brac, donated by generations of customers, continue to amass, as several longtime patrons struggle to refurbish the small, strange museum.

"Not everyone knows the historical significance of the donut," says Chavira, who oftentimes leads school field trips through the building. "Lou knew firsthand." Under a portrait of Lou Ades and the Chavira boys, I find the results of a taste test held at the San Jose International Auto Show in 2002, rating Lou's 17 to 1 over Krispy Kreme Doughnuts. Ades looks justifiably satisfied.

"San Jose bias," suggests a longtime Krispy Kreme fan.

"Yep," agrees John Martinko, a Detroit native who likens KK glazed donuts to sugar crack. "Nothing beats a Krispy Kreme."

Every day at dawn, and again at dusk, Krispy Kreme fans can be found lingering outside the big glass doors of the Daly City store, just waiting for the "Hot Now" sign to flicker to life.

"Oh, they know," assures General Manager David St. Germain. "Between 5:30 and 11 a.m., and 5 and 11 p.m., everyone gets a hot, free sample. It's a tradition."

At the 24-hour drive-through window, a customer honks his horn and waves at me enthusiastically, putting on his paper Krispy Kreme hat.

"Krispy Kreme lovers can get a little fanatical," agrees St. Germain. "It's crazy how much they love Krispy Kreme." St. Germain walks me through the patented process that produces 2,100 donuts every hour, 23 hours a day: the giant air-pressured extruder; the proofing box, where hundreds of donuts ride up and down on tiny racks in precisely controlled humidity and heat; the hot oil bath where each donut is automatically flipped, for even browning; the magical icing curtain; and the filling station where women deftly insert apple and blueberry in the exact golden center.

Feeling the sugar permeating my pores, I settle in and observe a young girl press her nose against the glass, watching a dream's worth of donuts pass by on the conveyer belt. Awe, wonder, delight, desire, and, finally, awe again -- the same emotions people probably felt in 1934 when Adolph Levitt's automatic donut-making machine debuted at the World's Fair in Chicago, spawning the triumphant appellation "the hit food of the Century of Progress."

"Oh, I don't know how long we've been here," shrugs Sonia L., who has been working behind the Polk Street counter of Bob's Donut & Pastry Shop since I was a child. "A long, long time."

I take a seat at the counter, sipping coffee, watching the night deepen, and the staff change. As one of the most perfectly located 24-hour donut shops in the city, Bob's starts to come alive around 2:30 a.m., when all the clubs close and the street trade settles down for a cheap fix. Bob's chocolate-dipped crinkle is the greatest donut in San Francisco, a salve for even the most battle-torn angel. I watch a slender boy with eyeliner running down his face shuffle into the shop and perch against the pinball machine, the weight of another world clinging to one drooping fake eyelash. He sinks his teeth into a donut, his eyes half closed, his lips caked by chocolate as black as tar, his tongue probing a doughy center as light as vapor. He smiles.

"I bet they don't have donuts in Iraq," he mumbles.

"Well, actually ...," I say, offering him a chair and another deep-fried halo.

About The Author

Silke Tudor


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