The Refined Doughnut: Taste, Class, and Doughnut Respectability
Albuquerque’s Rebel Donut is among a wave of doughnut shops offering up a host of novel flavors, seasonal or organic ingredients, and culinary standards that aim to upset the caricature of the conventional mass-produced doughnut. Their donut gallery includes such flavors as Red Chile Chocolate Bacon, Nacho, Water Melon, and their Breaking Bad tribute, Blue Sky. Many of these gourmet doughnut shops go beyond novel flavors alone and embrace a philosophy of food consumption that is rarely extended to the prosaic doughnut. For instance, Seattle’s Mighty-O Donut’s vegan offerings include French Toast, Chocolate Raspberry, and Lemon Twist doughnuts made from certified organic ingredients. Few bakeries can rival Mighty-O’s philosophical assessment of the doughnut, noting that when they started the business “our intention was to make an honest living while being mindful of people and respectful of the environment. We weren’t interested in producing anything that would just end up in a landfill or contribute to the pollution piling up in the world. … We couldn’t find anyone making a donut the way we envisioned. A sweet treat with no chemicals, no genetically modified organisms, and no animal products—something everyone could enjoy.”
As we approach Doughnut Day on June 6th, the artisan doughnut shop has carved a foothold in cosmopolitan marketplaces. Gourmet doughnut shops appeal to a consumer imagination that relishes superior flavor, embraces culinary creativity, and fancies that the consumer has a discerning and educated palate. The gourmet doughnut invokes food as a culinary, political, and intellectual consumer experience.
That vision of food is routinely projected onto products ranging from craft beers to cheese to chocolate. Perhaps the distinction between gourmet doughnuts and a host of many other artisanal foods is the distinctly plebian nature of the doughnut: Doughnuts are routinely caricatured as mass-produced fare that lacks the complex ingredients of gourmet dishes and is beneath the consideration of skilled chefs. Doughnuts are often viewed as violations of body discipline, a conscious (if not conflicted) embrace of desire for a food that seems to possess little or no redeeming quality. Doughnuts are sometimes cast as “downwardly mobile” consumption, an embrace of the common by otherwise bourgeois consumers who see the mass-produced doughnut as a bridge to the masses or ironic consumption. We spend little time questioning the concept of a craft beer, artisanal charcuterie, or organic olive oil; however, because the doughnut is rhetorically constructed as a junk food characterized by its lack of redeeming qualities, the gourmet doughnut is often a target of popular curiosity.
The sales appeals made by gourmet doughnut shops are largely indistinguishable from those made for many other bourgeois craft foods. For instance, local, fresh, organic, and healthy ingredients are commonly invoked by craft food producers. New York City’s Doughnut Plant was among the first artisan doughnut shops, focusing on seasonal and organic ingredients and rejecting “Trans Fat, Eggs, Preservatives, Artificial Flavorings, [and] Artificial Colors.” San Francisco’s Dynamo Donuts likewise uses “seasonal, local and organic ingredients wherever possible.” Indianapolis’ General American Doughnut Company is opening this month with doughnuts made with beer from local craft brewery Sun King, topping its maple and bacon doughnut with locally produced bacon from Smoking Goose, and serving coffee from Portland, Oregon’s Stumptown Coffee Roasters. Nearly no doughnut shop makes a claim to being “healthy,” but they distance the doughnut from its unhealthy stereotypes by focusing on craft doughnuts’ local and organic ingredients.
Upscale bakeries often celebrate their bakers’ credentials, invoking the superior preparation accorded an artisanal doughnut. Atlanta’s Sublime Doughnuts, for instance, includes a detailed biography of its chef and owner outlining his international training. Charleston’s Glazed Gourmet Doughnuts celebrates the training of its’ pastry chef at “the Culinary Institute of Charleston. She brings with her some crazy doughnut recipes and unconventional flavors. We have fun with our creations. Join us to explore the exotic world of doughnuts.” That notion of the “unconventional” flavor aspires to present the doughnut as an “exotic” food outside the everyday palate; this is a common rhetorical mechanism artisanal bakers use that is less about doughnuts than the refined tastes of their consumers. New York’s Dominique Ansel Bakery heralds Ansel’s James Beard Award for “Outstanding Pastry Chef” in the country. Ansel is perhaps best known for his trademarked cro-nut, a croissant-doughnut pastry that appears in one flavor each month (last month it was Blueberry Lemon Verbena with Greek Yogurt Ganache and lemon verbena sugar). Demand for the cro-nut is so fevered that they are scalped on a pastry black market.
Gourmet doughnuts often invoke culinary creativity and novel flavors, appealing to consumers’ desire to be seen as having visionary palates and adventurous personalities. Probably no other doughnut shop embraces novel tastes and a “doughnut personality” more creatively than Portland, Oregon’s Voodoo Doughnuts. Voodoo’s “Captain, My Captain” doughnut is covered with Captain Crunch; the “Maple Blazer Blunt” doughnut is a raised yeast doughnut rolled into a blunt and dusted with cinnamon sugar, and the tip is dipped in maple frosting and red sprinkle embers; the “Mexican hot chocolate” is a chocolate cake doughnut dusted in cinnamon sugar and cayenne pepper; and their “Diablos Rex” is a chocolate cake doughnut with chocolate frosting, red sprinkles, and a vanilla pentagram. This week Psycho Donuts is offering a special Donut Day offering of Zombie Pops that are red velvet doughnuts covered with “crunchy cheesy cheddar larvae – protruding from the Zombie’s mouth and eyes”; that is, real bug larvae. This follows last year’s offering of the Foie Bomb, a balsamic fig gastrique and Foie Mousse filling.
Many of these upscale doughnut shops appreciate our sensory experience in a shop, what Krispy Kreme terms “doughnut theater.” For instance, Minneapolis’ Glam Doll Donuts embraces a retro visual style for a bakery experience featuring flavors such as “misfit” (an orange, ginger and cinnamon infused glaze), “girls next door” (filled with provolone and muenster), and “chart topper” (peanut butter and sriracha). Voodoo’s theatre extends well behind Krispy Kreme’s neon lights: Voodoo holds fully legal weddings in its shop, they sell music and comedy CDs, and they sell panties emblazoned with doughnut innuendos. Psycho Donuts touts itself as the “the world’s first and only asylum for wayward donuts” and argues that a “trip to Psycho Donuts is a sensory experience, designed to bring out the crazy in all of us.” In various stylistic ways, these shops break from the caricature of a working-class doughnut shop as a dingy space permeated with the odor of over-heated coffee and lorded over by portly policemen.
The refined doughnuts and distinctive doughnut consumption experience in these bakeries is not at all likely to transform the doughnut marketplace. Many of the chains long associated with doughnuts are not necessarily focused on doughnut sales today: in 2011, for instance, Dunkin was the seventh most prosperous restaurant chain in America, but 58% of its sales in 2012 came from beverages. Gourmet bakeries are easy to ridicule as the province of self-important foodies or hipsters seeking ironic class descent, and many of these shops are socially insular spaces catering to a very modest slice of cosmopolitan consumers. Nevertheless, artisanal doughnuts may be significant as markers of indulgence in the midst of economic decline; that is, the gourmet doughnut represents an indulgence on a much more modest scale than costly commodities. Like a host of bourgeois coffee houses that have emerged since the 1990’s, the newly defined doughnut shop hopes to be a more fluid class terrain than the stereotypical working-class doughnut dive. Gourmet bakeries tend to focus on a variety of new consumer footholds: some most clearly play on humor and indulgence, other high-end bakeries invoke gourmet standards, and some refer to a philosophical framework for food consumption. In all of those cases, the prosaic doughnut aspires to defend itself as a meaningful dimension of broader human experience.
Blue Cheese Cabernet and Kulfi images from Glazed Gourmet Doughnuts
Blue Sky Doughnut, Rebel Donut from Rebel Donut
Dough Doughnut box from Wally Gobetz
Doughnut Plant Raspberry & Cream doughseed image from Doughnut Plant
Foie Bomb doughnut image from Psycho Donuts