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.
Perhaps what I like so much about Who Needs Donuts is that, aside from imagining a world in which children are unafraid of the city, it features the only professional doughnut-gatherer I’ve ever run across—besides myself.
In many years of restaurant criticism, I’ve written about doughnuts repeatedly. I actually have a sort of road map in my mind of what I consider the best doughnuts in town: There’s Mel-O-Glaze, in south Minneapolis, home to the city’s best raised-glazed doughnuts, as well as the cake doughnuts that I prefer above all others. Sweet and rich, they’re almost like pound cake. Even if I’ve been to six other doughnut places first, I can always eat a whole doughnut when I get to Mel-O-Glaze, which is saying something.
Then there’s the Baker’s Wife’s, a mere 10 blocks north of Mel-O-Glaze. A lot of people argue that they make the best cake doughnuts in town, and I see that as a respectable opinion. They’re less sweet, crisper, and they seem even more old-fashioned than most plain cake doughnuts.
I also really like Wuollet’s, which has the area’s best selection of the usual suspects: Long Johns, bear claws, and the like. Then there are our other lovable local doughnut places: Sara Jane in Northeast, Rosemark in St. Paul, Granny Donut in West St. Paul, Denny’s Fifth Avenue Bakery in Bloomington, the Old Fashioned Donut Shoppe in New Hope.
ON THE WAY to Denny’s Fifth Avenue Bakery in Bloomington, I fed Beans lines from all the books: “‘Scuse me, Mister,’ said the tyke/ ‘But where’s the donut that I like? It isn’t here, it isn’t there—You think it’s under that éclair?’”
We zipped down the construction canyon of I-35, between the dinosaur-sized diggers, oblivious to their dusty menace, for the topic of doughnuts was just that riveting. Denny’s Fifth Avenue feels like it has been lifted whole from the 1970s; it’s all Jimmy Carter bicentennial blue and naugahyde brown, slick, vinyl-touched, and awkward. Beans stood in front of the pastry case like a pro. There they all were, the Long Johns, the cream-filled, the jelly. Arnie had prepared him well for this moment.
“Is that brains leaking out?” Beans asked, rhetorically. “Nah, it’s just jelly.”
I got a dozen, and he got one just like Arnie, chocolate-covered, with bright-colored candy sprinkles. I placed it on a piece of wax paper and set it on his lap as he sat in his car seat. There it rested for the drive home. I fed him lines from the books all the way home: “Do you doughnuts know you’re going to be eaten?” I asked. “Yes, we’re delicious!” he replied. “Try us for yourself!”
When we arrived at home, I looked at the doughnut carefully. To the untrained eye, it might have seemed untouched. But there was one small blemish on the icing’s surface, as if a thumb had smudged it, or a little mouse had, perhaps, taken a lick.
A few days later, we went to Wuollet’s. The one on Hennepin Avenue that always has a pleasant mix of dog-walkers from Lake of the Isles, anti-coffeeshop rebel teens doing homework, and construction workers and tradesmen. We got a box of the assorted doughnuts. I particularly enjoyed the raised yeast one frosted with chocolate.It had a deep real-cocoa taste. However, even to my wishful eye, I knew that the sprinkle-topped doughnut I got for Beans was completely untouched. I coined a name for such perfectly lovely doughnuts that went unsampled: They were Holders. Beans liked holding them. In fact, he liked them so much that he would spend 24 hours holding on to them, moving them from plate to bag repeatedly. But if any icing got on his hands, he’d demand: “Mom, can you clean it up?”
We made a trip to Mel-O-Glaze. Sun twinkled from the wide parkway outside and into the vintage bakery. I thought the doughnuts were great. The raised glazed was light and dewy within, the cake doughnut was sweet and buoyant in just the right way. But, it, too, was a Holder.
We went to A Baker’s Wife’s, a tiny bakery cluttered as a church sale with baked goods, but the crisp little gem there was also a Holder. We even made the trip to Granny Donuts a nowhere-looking chain in West St. Paul. The doughnuts there were, at best, average, cold, and greasy tasting. I wished I had made mine a Holder, instead of a Taster.
Doughnuts, it turned out, were not the thin end of the wedge. In fact, doughnuts were starting to become a lot like parenting itself, which in my experience is a series of minute, constant, intolerable failures, interleaved with exhaustion, and punctuated by moments of heart-rending cuteness that somehow add up to general success. The success, of course, comes not from anything one does, but because of nature’s plan: The kids grow. Before I had kids I’d hear things like, “Parenting is humbling,” and I’d put that in the same basket as, “Life is sweet,” and “Happiness is worth pursuing.” Whatever. Now I know that parenting is humbling because you can put all the mighty force of your heart and mind into it and you will still be failing. Where’d I put that remote control?
Still, while doughnuts were looking to be a series of failures they also had become a habit, and when I picked Beans up from pre-school one day, he asked for a doughnut. It was the end of the day when we stopped at Wuollet’s, and they were cleaned out. So we crossed the street to SuperAmerica. I hoisted him up so he could peer inside the plastic doors at the plastic-looking donuts on their plastic trays, and Beans chose a raised-glazed and a vanilla-iced with bright candy sprinkles. Such doughnuts are the heroes, respectively, of The Donut Chef and Arnie the Doughnut. Beans put them in a plastic bag, and carried them around like carnival goldfish all evening. The doughnuts even came with us when we walked the neighbor’s dog to the neighborhood garden. And as we sat in this garden, next to an old wishing well, Beans turned a handle.
“Mom,” Beans said, “Mom I want to make a wish in the wishing well.”
“Yes,” I said. “You can make a wish. What do you want to wish for?”
“I wish for doughnuts,” he said. He looked at me intensely, a little smile tickling his mouth with its little baby teeth slightly too far apart. “I wish for doughnuts,” he said again.
I took the doughnut out of the bag and, to my astonishment, Beans actually tried eating it. Of course, he didn’t know how, and went in icing-first, from the top. In the process, he gave himself a clown nose of white icing, and a matching goatee and moustache, too.
All I could think was: Really? A SuperAmerica doughnut?
I re-direct your attention to the central tenet of my professional existence, namely, that good food is better than bad food. This could not stand.
We went back to Mel-O-Glaze. Those doughnuts were still Holders. Back to Baker’s Wife’s. Holders. But then one day we were heading back to the house from the playground when Beans requested a doughnut. We stopped at a coffee shop with baked goods straight from some warehouse store. Beans got a pink doughnut with candy sprinkles—and began eating it straight-away, spinning it until he ate all the sprinkles and icing off the top. His one-year-old sister, sitting next to him in a double stroller finished her doughnut, then lunged for his. Amid the tussle, his doughnut cracked in half.
“Mom!” Beans shrieked, preparing to cry. Until he realized the breaking had revealed a secret inner-nugget of icing and sprinkles. Which he ate.
And now Beans eats doughnuts. I feel pride, because eating more, and not less, is an enormous triumph in our little world, and somehow we got from eating less to eating more. But more than that I feel painfully amused, because as per usual, triumph comes at the end of a chain of near total failure. And this chain of failures has even forced me to come to terms with something that readers have been telling me for years, an idea that I have so hotly resisted—that good enough is indeed good enough, that any port in a storm is better than none, and that there may well be no such thing as a bad doughnut. Sometimes.
Dara’s picks for great baked goods around town
The Salty Tart
icing, real weighty, genuine cake. Yum.
920 E. Lake St., Mpls.
The Twin Cities’ best boule, densely flavored, but the texture is light.
816 W. 46th St., Mpls.
Patrick’s Bakery & Cafe
Making mousse regal: Patrick’s chocolate feuillantine cake.
2928 W. 66th St., Mpls.
Tarts fit for a queen are Margo’s specialty.
5133 Gus Young Lane, Edina, 952-926-0548
Turtle Bread’s perfect baguettes marry an airy tender crumb with a crisp crunchy crust.
Various locations. turtlebread.com
Cupcakes should be, above all, innocent, sweet, and tender—like Wuollet’s.
Various locations. wuollet.com
Denny’s 5th Ave. Bakery
Pumpernickel as hardy as winter on the tundra.
7840 Fifth Ave. S., Bloomington, 952-881-4445, dennysbakery.com
WHERE TO GET YOUR DOUGHNUT FIX
Sarah Jane’s Bakery
2853 Johnson St.,
A Baker’s Wife’s Pastry Shop
4200 28th Ave. S.,
4800 28th Ave. S., Mpls.
258 Snelling Ave. S.
1555 Robert St. S.,
West St. Paul
Old Fashioned Donut Shoppe
2720 Douglas Dr. N., Mpls.
Dara Moskowitz Grumdahl is a senior editor at Minnesota Monthly.