Today is National Donut Day! The holiday is celebrated annually on the first Friday of June, and it’s the best day to head to your local bakery. Most use the day to attract customers with free doughnuts. Sure, it’s a treat that’s not good for your health, but they are delicious nonetheless! Think of it as a very specific National Eat What You Want Day.
The history of the holiday is quite rich, unlike many of the food holidays we celebrate that are usually just marketing gimmicks. In fact, National Doughnut Day has its roots in World War I.
Here’s what you need to know about the history of the holiday.
1. National Donut Day Honors the Salvation Army’s ‘Donut Lassies’ of World War I
Although National Donut Day wasn’t born until the Great Depression, it has its roots in World War I. In 1917, when the U.S. finally entered the war, 250 Salvation Army volunteers headed to France to pass out donuts, according to the Salvation Army. These volunteers were nicknamed “donut lassies.”
Despite their limited resources, they still fried the treats, seven at a time. Salvation Army Ensign Margaret Sheldon and Adjutant Helen Purviance even thought of frying donuts in soldiers’ helmets.
As WorldWar1.com notes, the two women didn’t even have rolling pins, so they used their hands and wine bottles to shape the treats. They also had to use a knife to cut the dough into strips and hand-twist them into crullers.
“I was literally on my knees,” Purviance once recalled, “when those first doughnuts were fried, seven at a time, in a small frypan. There was also a prayer in my heart that somehow this home touch would do more for those who ate the doughnuts than satisfy a physical hunger.”
2. The Salvation Army Established the Holiday in 1938 as a Fundraiser
The Salvation Army cashed in on its history with the doughnut in 1938 by establishing National Donut Day. Not only did it honor the women who served in World War I, but it was alao a way to help raise funds during the Great Depression, National Day Calendar notes.
The Salvation Army continues to use the holiday to raise money for its social services. The group notes that it helps over 25 million people in need a year, so it needs our help more often than just during Christmas. Donut fans have been encouraged to use the hashtag #GivingIsSweet when posting a photo of themselves enjoying a donut.
The Salvation Army also enlisted Snapchat artist @EMGARBER to encourage people to design donuts for veterans. The donut designs later became real and were delivered to veterans.
3. Sea Captain Hanson Gregory Took Credit for Inventing the Doughnut
The history of the doughnut, like many foods, is cloudy. There’s a theory that Dutch settlers in North America invented it. But if you need a specific name for the inventor of the doughnut, look n further than the rugged sea captain Hanson Gregory! (Yes, there is a way to make doughnuts even cooler.)
The story goes that Gregory, who was born in Rockport, Maine, made fried blobs of dough on his ship. In 1847, he had the brilliant idea of sticking the blobs on his steering wheel. When he pulled them off, there was a hole in the middle. Viola! The doughnut is born. Roadside America notes that there is a plaque in Rockport to commemorate his birth and his role in inventing the doughnut (or donut).
But maybe the credit for inventing the doughnut goes to Gregor’s mother, Elizabeth. According to the Smithsonian Magazine, Elizabeth established the recipe for the blobs her son ate. She made a deep-fried dough that used nutmeg, cinnamon and lemon grind. Her son later added the hole.
Then again, Dr. Paul R. Mullins wrote in his book Glazed America that he actually found a British cookbook from 1803 that mentioned the word “doughnut” in a collection of American recipes. Either way, the doughnut has clearly been considered an all-American treat for 200 years.
4. Doughnut Began Turning Into Donut in the Early 1900s
While doughnut is the proper spelling, we Americans are always looking for quicker ways to write things, whether it’s spelling socks as “sox” or abbreviating state names. Plus, short words look pretty good in lights and on billboards.
The first known use of “donut” instead of “doughnut” came in 1900’s Peck’s Bad Boy and His Pa by George W. Peck. Peck wrote, “Pa said he guessed he hadn’t got much appetite, and he would just drink a cup of coffee and eat a donut.”
By the 1930s, “donut” was becoming more common. When 1950, Dunkin’ Donuts was established in Quincy, Massachusetts, it still wasn’t everywhere. Now that “America runs on Dunkin'” – as the company claims – we even spell doughnut as “donut” more often. As the Google Books Ngram Viewer notes, use of “donut” skyrocketed in the 1950s. There are now 11,000 Dunkin’ Donuts in the world.
5. Southern California’s Pink Boxes for Doughnuts Are Credited to Two Cambodian Americans Fleeing Genocide
In Southern California, fresh doughnuts are famously served in pink boxes. As a May 2017 Los Angeles Times feature notes, the story begins in the 1970s and it is a distinctly American story.
Two Cambodian refugees – Ted Ngoy and his now ex-wie Ning Yen – who were escaping the Cambodian genocide, established a successful network of doughnut shops. They wanted to present their doughnuts in red boxes, but decided to get cheaper stock that was already turning pink. This later became the standard for boxes at locally-owned shops throughout Los Angeles and Southern California.
Southern California has become the center of the doughnut universe, with 680 shops in Los Angeles County alone.
“It’s romantic and childlike and it entices you,” Kimberly Marte, a teacher at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, told the LA Times of the pink boxes. “It makes you crave sugar.”