March 16, 2010

Maine's historical firsts include a leap of doughy inspiration

— In early Colonial times, Dutch immigrants (who named it olykoeks or ''oily cakes'') discovered fried dough. Apparently, a cow kicked a pot full of boiling oil over onto some pastry mix, thus inventing the golden-brown delight.

And that is where I come into the picture. Yes, me. A Turkish immigrant, by way of Pakistan, schooled by the British, secretly given the revelation of Tolstoy's vision by the Benedictine monks of St. John's School and finally captured by a fair maiden here in Maine. Yes, me. But I get ahead of myself.

You see, around 1847, Elizabeth Gregory, a New England ship captain's mother (living around present-day Camden), made a deep-fried dough that used her son's spice cargo of nutmeg, cinnamon and lemon rind.

She made the deep-fried cakes for her son Hansen and his crew so they could store the pastry on long voyages and help ward off scurvy and colds.

Mrs. Gregory put hazel nuts or walnuts in the center, where the dough might not cook through, and called them doughnuts.

Hansen always took credit for the hole in the doughnut. Some doughnut historians think that Hansen was a bit of a cheapskate (my viewpoint: Maine frugality) and was just trying to save on food costs.

Others say that he gave the doughnut its first hole when, in the middle of a terrible storm and in order to get both hands on the ship's wheel, he crammed one of his mother's fried sensations onto one of the wooded spokes of the wheel (our maritime heritage).

Yet another tale claims that he decided (and this is my favorite) that, after a visit from an angel, the doughy center of the fried cakes had to go.

In an interview with The Washington Post on March 26, 1916, Hansen said:

''It was way back -- oh, I don't know just what year -- let me see -- born in '31, shipped when I was 13 -- well, I guess it was about '47, when I was 16, that I was aboard ship and discovered the hole which was later to revolutionize the doughnut industry.

''I first shipped aboard the Isaac Achorn, three-masted schooner, Capt. Rhodes, in the lime trade. Later I joined other crews and other captains, and it was on one of these cruises that I was mawing doughnuts.

''Now in them days we used to cut the doughnuts into diamond shapes, and also into long strips, bent in half, and then twisted. I don't think we called them doughnuts then -- they was just 'fried cakes' and 'twisters.'

''Well, sir, they used to fry all right around the edges, but when you had the edges done the insides was all raw dough. And the twisters used to sop up all the grease just where they bent, and they were tough on the digestion.''

''Well, I says to myself, 'Why wouldn't a space inside solve the difficulty?' I thought at first I'd take one of the strips and roll it around, then I got an inspiration, a great inspiration.

''I took the cover off the ship's tin pepper box, and -- I cut into the middle of that doughnut the first hole ever seen by mortal eyes!''

He continues: ''Well, I never took out a patent on it; I don't suppose any one can patent anything he discovers; I don't suppose Peary could patent the North Pole or Columbus patent America. But I thought I'd get out a doughnut cutter -- but somebody got in ahead of me.

And he ends by saying: ''Of course a hole ain't so much; but it's the best part of the doughnut -- you'd think so if you had ever tasted the doughnuts we used to eat in '31. Of course, lots of people joke about the hole in the doughnut. I've got a joke myself: Whenever anybody says to me: 'Where's the hole in the doughnut?' I always answer: 'It's been cut out!' ''

Today, Clam Cove, an inlet in the Camden/Rockport area, has a plaque in honor of Capt. Hansen Crockett Gregory, the man who invented the hole in the doughnut in 1847.

And ah, yes, Hanson Gregory is my wife's (the fair maiden's) great-great grandfather. I could (Hansen! Yes, you can patent the hole!) have been a doughnut magnate leading to a guest appearance on ''The Simpsons.''

No matter though, I may never be Mainer by blood (still, I am getting buried here), but I (my circle of life, complete) am part of the family that has gifted the United States alone, over 10 billion doughnuts every year -- with Hansen's hole in the middle of it.

Yes, I am Maine and Maine is me.

Kerem Durdag is a technology-business executive, a published poet and a translator. He lives in Scarborough with his wife and three children.

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