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Down the doughnut hole: fried dough in art

Fried dough has been enjoyed for centuries in various forms, from the celebratory zeppole of St. Joseph’s Day to the doughnuts the Salvation Army distributed to soldiers during World War I. So important were doughnuts for boosting troop morale that when World War II came around, the Red Cross followed closely behind the US Army as it advanced across Europe, offering doughnuts from trucks specially outfitted with vats for deep-frying. After the war, chains like Dunkin’ Donuts began dotting the landscape, first in the United States, and then worldwide. Our national love affair with these fried treats is expressed in National Doughnut Day (5 November), National Jelly-Filled Doughnut Day (8 June), and National Cream-Filled Doughnut Day (15 June). The granddaddy of them all is National Donut Day, the first Friday in June, initiated in 1938 by the Salvation Army. But it may have been the cartoon character Homer Simpson who consolidated the doughnut’s status as an American icon when he declared that he’d sell his soul to the devil for his beloved doughnuts.

Homer’s remark prompts us to wonder: If William Blake found a world in a grain of sand, then what’s in a doughnut, or rather, in its hole? Is the hole present as empty space, or is it absent, a void? Is a doughnut hole still a doughnut?

The cartoonist Bill Griffith picked up on this existential note in one of his “Zippy the Pinhead” strips from 1994, titled “A Hole New Thing.” Zippy contemplates Emily Eveleth’s luminous doughnut paintings, giving Griffith a chance to engage in lively verbal play, riffing on the doughnut, its hole, and their commodification in American culture. His text reads:

“Zippy Dear, you seem preoccupied tonight—you’ve barely touched your Krispy Kreme!”

“I have seen th’ doughnuts of Emily Eveleth!!”

“Oh? Does she work at Hostess…or Dunkin’? And is our relationship threatened by your involvement with her baked goods?”

“Emily Eveleth aesthetically selects doughnuts and transforms them to a higher level of doughnutness!!”

“Now I know why you’ve been so glazed lately!”

“If the doughnuts of Emily Eveleth met the apples of Paul Cezanne, would they fritter away their time discussing the holeness of the universe??”

“Delicious art, Emily!”

Though Eveleth’s doughnuts are highly realistic, she animates them beyond their objectness, making them appear at once concrete and abstract, hinting at other realms. Eveleth sometimes presents solitary doughnuts, as in “Order” (2007), in which a lone doughnut shimmers with light against a spare, flat background, tempting us to pleasure. The painting’s simplicity highlights the textured airiness of the pastry, its sugary glaze. But this is no Pop-Art confection in candy colors; the longer we gaze at this initially alluring doughnut, the more the jelly appears as a violation, like blood seeping from a wound, reminding us that pleasure can also inflict pain. While the foreground shimmers with light, the doughnut mediates between the viewer and the void of the black background, suggesting the sense of loss that ensues once desire has been fulfilled.

Jelly doughnuts in particular engage Eveleth’s imagination. An early prototype for the sugary pillows we enjoy today is found in a recipe for “Gefüllte Krapfen” in Kuchenmeisterei (Mastery of the Kitchen), a cookbook for the elite that was published in Nuremberg in 1485. This early version of jelly doughnuts consisted simply of pieces of leavened dough deep fried in lard and sandwiched together with jam. You can get a sense of this sandwich style in New Zealand photographer Peter Peryer’s striking image of plump, cream-filled doughnuts dripping with jelly. By contrast, today’s jelly doughnuts are mechanically injected with a syringe, revealing only a small orifice to suggest the sweet surprise within.

Doughnuts carry not only philosophical and sexual connotations along with their promise of deliciousness. When prepared as a final indulgence before Lent (the Fastnacht) or for a celebration of the Hanukkah miracle (sufganiyot), they emblematize larger religious ideas. As Zippy says, the artist Emily Eveleth raises doughnuts to a “hole” new level, imbuing them with longing and a desire for something beyond the simple taste of sweet on the tongue. Here we face the essence of the jelly doughnut, its insides exposed, inducing feelings of melancholy and desire.

Headline image: Photo by Ryan A. Monson. CC BY 2.0 via Flickr.

Recent Comments

  1. […] Oxford University Press describes the delicious history of doughnuts in art. […]

  2. Faylinn

    I absolutely love doughnuts, especially the ones that are filled with jelly. I can’t believe that they even existed back in the year 1485. However, I definitely think that the use of leavened dough would taste very different compared to the dough that most bakeries use today. Nevertheless, I think I might be up to try this “Mastery of the Kitchen” recipe.

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