As historical subjects go, the doughnut looks a lot more fun than, say, the suffragette movement or the War of 1812. But it's no less serious, according to Steve Penfold, a history professor at the University of Toronto and author of The Donut: A Canadian History, released this month.
We caught up with Dr. Penfold drinking a coffee in his office. Without a doughnut.
What, no doughnut?
I don't eat doughnuts any more. I was at a conference on food history once and we talked under our breath about the cravings. Aching cravings, because all you do is think about food all day.
But the doughnut turned out to be a perfect study subject.
I grew up in the suburbs and I hung out in doughnut shops a lot. I was interested in them as the Canadian version of the British pub. The more I looked at it, the more I realized many big cultural and social changes converged on the doughnut. But also that the doughnut had certain properties that spoke back to those changes.
It's sort of a mundane product and yet it's spun these big myths. Rather than talk about particular doughnuts or why people eat them, I was more interested in talking about what big developments gave rise to - if you don't mind a yeast metaphor - the culture of doughnuts and doughnut shops.
After the First World War, that meant shiny new machines to mass produce things?
It was subject to a similar set of entrepreneurial visions or capitalist visions as the automobile. But you can take a washing machine or a car and ship it fairly far. But a doughnut goes stale. So it's one of the products undergoing the process of standardization and science and mechanization.
But what was the alternative? Was my great-grandmother actually making doughnuts at home?
I bet your great-grandmother would say she was making them - or your mother would say that your great-grandmother was making them. I read some diaries from the 19th century and cookbooks and domestic help columns about, "I can't get my doughnuts to rise." And when the mass producers started making them, they often made all kinds of maternal references. Whether the doughnuts were actually being made or people just said they were, you saw a relief.
Then, by the 1960s, we get the franchises - Dunkin' Donuts, Country Style, Tim Hortons - just as we are also embracing car culture and the suburbs, right?
For most Canadians the doughnut had always been a convenience food. Even in the 1930s there are stories about cups of coffee lined up with a doughnut resting on top - and you'd walk right through the shop. It became a convenience food in cities based on walking and streetcars. And then, it feeds off this new market of drivers.
By the 1980s, though, doughnut shops became largely smoky and male-dominated places.
Yes - and the companies had to start broadening out their marketing, to families.
Is that when Tim Hortons pulled off what you call the Hortonization of doughnut lore?
It's really a story of the 1990s and Tim Hortons' True Stories marketing campaign. It was so brilliant, it was about a folklore that exists. Then they tweak it and sell it back to the public. I've read a thousand times that Canadians eat more doughnuts than Americans. That's not the important thing. It's what people did with that fact once they decided they knew it. We started to refer to other Canadian symbols, such as our Northern winter.
Such as, we love doughnuts because we need the calories to keep warm?
Yes. And it also represents anti-Americanism. In the 1980s, there's a broader sense of crisis, constitutional negotiations. The doughnut becomes a quirky symbol of Canadian nationalism. Politicians talk about getting the Tim Hortons vote.
We're fiercely proud of our doughnuts, aren't we?
Consuming things isn't just buying things; it's a lot of identity and sense of self. And how we identify the good life.
So, doughnut-wise, which kind signals the good life to you?
There was a shop in New York City with huge organic doughnuts. There was one with an orange glaze. It was phenomenal. I'm lucky it was in New York.