Review: Glazed America – A History of the Doughnut

Glazed America – A History of the Doughnut

By Paul R. Mullins
University of Florida Press
(224 pages)

Reviewed by Steven A. Hovan
Department of Geoscience, Indiana University of Pennsylvania
Note: The author of this review is not a nutritional anthropologist, but a devoted aficionado of doughnuts, and thus an appropriate candidate for writing this review.


Everybody loves a good doughnut. So what could be better than reading a book about the social, economic and cultural history of doughnuts while nibbling on a few Bavarian cream delights from the local bakery? Glazed America examines what the doughnut shop symbolizes in our society and what food like doughnuts can tell us about the social and historical settings in which they are consumed. It goes well beyond questions about obesity and the morality of eating fried cakes, but delves deeper into complex connections between consumption of doughnuts and American foodways, nationalism, and suburbanization.

Glazed America begins with an attempt to define meaning of doughnuts and broaden the context which we examine what they tell us about society and culture. The image of doughnuts and those who consume them reveal conflicting views. While their taste is undeniably appealing, people eat doughnuts for more than just the caloric intake. Often painted as the bad “fat” food eaten by unhealthy working class people and cops, doughnuts also serve as a fond memory of childhood sweets and as the catalyst for gatherings like church socials or “donuts with dad” days at school. When trying to comfort disaster victims, we hand out coffee and doughnuts among other necessities like water and ice. To ignore the influence of the doughnut shop in our cultural identity is to ignore the role doughnuts play in complex web of social and economic relationships and national identity. The following chapters try to untangle some of these relationships through a discourse about the history of the doughnut itself and the commercial development of the doughnut industry.

Chapter 2 traces the ascent of doughnut from its ancestral Dutch roots as the olykoek to its twentieth century icon of American cuisine. Mullins weaves a fascinating tale of doughnut evolution deciphered from early cookbooks and historical publications. Although many food cultures include some form of fried cake, the birth of the American doughnut is likely tied to Dutch immigrants who colonized what is now New York and brought with them olykoeks – fried dough cakes that was either twisted or had a nut placed in the center. The emergence of mass production in the 20th century combined with broad changes in the consumer landscape transformed the doughnut from a home-made treat to a mass commodity. As large doughnut chain stores began to dot the suburban setting in the latter half of the 20th century, doughnuts claimed their spot in American foodways and quickly became a national food icon.

Chapters 3 and 4 begins to explore the complicated relationship between doughnut marketing and demand. Here we find how suburbanization of America developed the complicated social influence of the doughnut shop and the way doughnuts are made, sold and eaten. Doughnut shops themselves are symbols of American entrepreneurialism and bring a sense of regional or national pride. Canadians love their Tim Hortons as much as Southerners swear by a warm Krispy Kreme. But doughnut consumption and doughnut shops also project a conflicting sentiment to many, as obesity and negative health effects are associated with their consumption. Doughnuts have come to symbolize more than just bad physical effects of too much starch and sugar, but also now serve to some as a moral indicator of poor self-discipline and laziness. In this context, doughnut consumption must be viewed as more than just delicious calories.

Overall, Glazed America makes for an enjoyable read. It provides an insightful and thorough look at place doughnuts have in our society and the complex relationship that exists between food, culture, economics and history. It provokes thought and discussion about why we enjoy certain foods and gives context for a deeper discussion about everything ranging from consumerism and economics to morality. As such I think this book could be used in a variety of courses, especially those that wish to cross disciplines of sociology and economics. Or if like me, you simply wish to know more about something near and dear to your heart and stomach, then by all means grab a cruller and start reading.

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