The Doughnut Gatherer
What happens when a restaurant critic gives birth to a child who won’t eat? Failure, icing, sprinkles, journeys among dinosaur road-diggers, tears, and a little bit of triumph.
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There such a thing as a bad doughnut? Until very recently I would have said: “Yes. Most of them.” The gas-station doughnut. The grocery-store doughnut. The big-box store doughnut. These are mere vehicles for sugar and grease, and Americans would be better off if we ate carrot sticks until we could purchase superior artisan-made doughnuts. ¶ I would have said this because I say it about every kind of junk food: nachos, pizza, chilidogs, cheese steaks, and so on. In fact, I’ve based most of my professional identity on this idea, that if you want to know what the best doughnut in town is, you simply go to 12 or 20 of the likeliest places and find the best. And you want the best, don’t you? That’s self-evident, right? Everyone wants the best.
I do. Or I did. Before I got pregnant, before I had kids. Now I’ve got a one-year-old who will eat anything—shabu shabu, red curry, sand—and a three-and-a-half-year-old who will eat almost nothing. Conseqently, this food critic has learned a few things about food.
I’ll call him Beans. That’s not his real name. But I used to sing him a lullaby about bumblebees when he was a baby, and over time, bee turned to beans.
Beans was born colicky and beset by acid-reflux. Tilt him off an upright axis and his stomach acid would bubble past a little poorly functioning valve and make him scream. Until he was eight months old, he had to be held upright at all times. My husband would stay up walking and holding him until 3 a.m., at which point the alarm clock would ring and I would wake to hold him.
Things have gotten better, though not much. His stomach still hurts all the time, and he doesn’t like food. He eats about a dozen things, all white, all things you’d want if you were recovering from stomach flu: pears, apples, Saltines, white bread, pretzels, Cheerios, string cheese, poached chicken meatballs, butter, and ice cream (rarely). That about wraps it up.
If you read the foodie press, you’ll know it’s a point of pride among today’s parents to brag about what arcane foods their child delights in: Japanese nori paper, capers, Roquefort cheese. Ideally, the sentence you want to drop at the playground runs something like this: “Little Gabriel is such a snob, he won’t eat cassoulet with truffle oil—only real truffles. I’m going to go bankrupt!”
This is painful. As a food critic, it destroys the dream I had when I first got pregnant, that of running around to obscure taco holes and barbecue dives with my little sidekick. More urgently, as a parent, it means I have no way to bribe him.
Other children consider being sent to bed without supper punishment. Being sent to bed without supper would be Beans’s preferred evening. (My husband and I have twice taken our pediatrician’s advice to simply offer food, without insisting Beans eat it. Both times, after two days, when not a single morsel of food had crossed his lips, we buckled.) Other children can be coerced into all sorts of activities by offering or withholding dessert. We’re as likely to get Beans to eat a cupcake as we are to get him to eat a block of soap. A few weeks ago, I got a bag of jelly beans in the mail as part of some promotion. I brought them home. We got Beans an egg carton, into which he happily sorted the jellybeans by color. Over the next week, he did this several more times—and not one jellybean went missing. He has a bag full of Dum-Dum lollipops from which he has removed all the wrappers. He sticks them into modeling clay to make sculptures. Child-rearing experts tell us that one of the chief predictors of a child’s future success is the ability to delay gratification, to choose two cookies in 15 minutes rather than just one cookie now. There are no studies on children who want no cookies ever.
Now, you may be thinking: Why don’t you just cut the kid some slack and let him not eat? Isn’t the ultimate state of enlightenment to live without desire? Hasn’t Beans achieved this at the tender age of three?
If you are thinking this, it is probably because you are an idealistic 14-year-old without kids. I know this because I was once an idealistic 14-year-old without kids, and that idealistic voice still echoes in my head. I find myself incredulous how deep and dark my desire is to lure or coerce my kid into eating. This uneasy part of me, however, has been pummeled into submission by the panic-stricken part of me, the part of me that can’t shake the memory of being at a friend’s vacation house in Wisconsin where we met another family with a child beset by the same cluster of acid-reflux symptoms. This child’s family didn’t force her to eat. She was five years old, but she was the size of a slight two-year-old. Her family explained that her teeth were so soft, from lack of nutrients and vomiting, that she would probably soon get child-sized dentures.
So we force him to eat. Here’s how: We turn on the television. There have been studies showing that sugar is more appealing to rats then cocaine. In my experience, television, to a curious toddler, is more powerful than either. We turn on a screen, and sit behind him popping bites of meatball and cheese in his mouth. It’s a terrible option, except for all the other ones. I’ve heard other parents call television “the zombie machine.” Exactly.
Then there’s YouTube. For a while Beans was obsessed with church bells, and we would watch videos of ringing church bells, as well as glockenspiels, carillons, and hand bells. Later it was marble-runs and domino constructions falling down. Then he discovered a show that airs on the Discovery Channel called “How It’s Made.” The show consists of five-minute segments explaining the construction of crayons, novelty ice-cream treats, push brooms, and everything else. Beans’ favorite was about doughnuts.
At first, I didn’t think too much about it. It’s not atypical for Beans to watch a two-minute YouTube clip hundreds of times. There’s a 1979 Sesame Street abstract animation, set to a piece by Philip Glass, called “Geometry of Circles” that he must have watched a thousand times. But one night, I found him in his bath, shoving bath toys through the water, reciting: “A high-speed mixer works the yeast dough, then workers pull it off the machine into bins. From there, it goes into a hopper that extrudes the dough as a sheet….” Not long after that, I found him shoving his favorite blanket into a drawer, slamming the drawer shut, then extracting the blanket and transferring it to a space beneath a footstool, all while providing this commentary: “Doughnuts used to be called ‘oily-cakes’ because they were deep-fried in pork fat. They were ball-shaped when Dutch pilgrims brought them to America….”
“Beans, are you making doughnuts?” I asked.
“I am,” he said. “I am making doughnuts…. A high speed mixer works the yeast dough….”
Was this the thin end of a wedge?
I thought so—if doughnuts could somehow become more than a mechanical process to Beans, that is. I ordered some books.
CHILDREN’S picture-book literature involving doughnuts is limited, but uniformly excellent. There’s Arnie the Doughnut, by Laurie Keller, about a young ring of dough “chocolate-covered with bright-colored candy sprinkles,” who is made through a series of numbered steps. Beans particularly enjoys step two: “Deep-fried,” which involves Arnie swimming in oil and saying, “I’m soaking in boiling grease but I LOVE IT!”
After Arnie meets his fellow doughnuts in a pastry case, a rude doughnut hole points at a jelly doughnut and shrieks, “Eeeooo! His brains are leaking out!” To which the doughnut replies, “It’s not brains, silly. It’s jelly!”
Arnie is nearly eaten by his purchaser, Mr. Bing, which horrifies Arnie, and so he phones his baker to warn him, at which point he is informed that doughnuts are, in fact, made to be eaten. Arnie can’t believe him.
“Are the other doughnuts aware of this arrangement?” he gasps.
There’s also The Donut Chef, by Bob Staake, which details the war between “two donut shops on one small street! For customers they did compete!” This competition first involves discounts and extra frosting, but it soon devolves into something else: “Some were square and some were starry, some looked just like calamari!”
Eventually, after all the peculiar shapes have been mastered, bizarre flavorings are brought to bear, until the day a small girl named Debbie Sue ventures in, looking for a plain glazed doughnut. There is none. “We’ve donuts laced with kiwi jam/And served inside an open clam!” Staake writes. “Donuts made with huckleberry/(Don’t be scared; they’re kind of hairy)/And donuts made from spiced rum pears/So popular with millionaires!”
I bristled the first time I read The Donut Chef. (Were children’s picture books really going to criticize molecular gastronomy? Really?) But over time it’s grown on me, especially when I hear Beans reciting the doughnut-positive messages in the book: “Then all the people sang in praise/Of simple donuts dipped in glaze!”
But my favorite doughnut book is a recent re-issue of 1973’s Who Needs Donuts? It’s an odd, psychedelic-looking pen-and-ink drawn book by Mark Alan Stamaty, a famous illustrator whose work has appeared in the likes of the Village Voice, Slate, and New York Review of Books. The book tells the story of a boy who can never get enough doughnuts, and so one day he rides his tricycle to the city to get his fill. He pairs up with a professional doughnut-gatherer. As he and his pal roam the city, they often cross paths with a bereft-looking woman.
“Who needs donuts when you’ve got love?” she asks.
The answer? The bereft old woman herself, of course. After an escaped bull pierces a giant vat of coffee that sits above her basement home, she risks drowning until the boy uses his many, many doughnuts to rescue her—by soaking up all the coffee.