The Tale of Hanson Gregory

How did the doughnut get its hole? The number one legend has to be the tale of New England sea captain Hanson Gregory. The year was 1847. Doughnuts, originally brought to American shores by the Dutch, were already well ensconced in our popular eating culture. They had but one engineering flaw: a gooey and undercooked center. Ever despairing of the state of his mother’s doughnuts, Gregory still took a box with him whenever he set sail. One particular morning off Chesapeake Bay, the weather turned foul. Hanson soon found himself fighting the wheel of his schooner with nary a hand to spare. Suddenly (metaphorical) lightning struck: if he poked the middles of his doughnuts out, not only would the icky uncooked centers be gone, he could slip the rings onto the spindles of his captain’s wheel. He could eat a man’s breakfast and fight the elements at the same time!

I’m not buying that one of course, even if there is a plaque commemorating the event on the exterior wall of Hanson’s home (which is still standing) in Rockport, Maine. Odds are, Gregory’s mother was making yeast doughnuts for her son on his sailing days, and as the Poles and Germans well knew by 1847, a disk of light, yeasted dough dropped into a vat of hot oil has no trouble cooking all the way though (they’re the basis of all sorts of northern European filled treats, Berliners being but one example).

Could she have been making denser cake doughnuts with chemical leavening? It’s possible, but not terribly likely in my view. True, chemical leavening had technically been available for over 20 years by 1847, but it was by no means the first choice for home bakers, especially in towns like Rockport. Alkaline-tasting baking powder breads might have been all right for desperate soldiers and frontiersmen, but in the civilized world people ate yeast.

Which I suppose is not to say that Gregory didn’t just stick a doughnut onto his captain’s wheel one day. But c’mon, how silly is that? The thing falls off with the first bite. There’s also another problem with the story: doughnuts of that time were both rather small and often sphere-like (the “nut” portion of the word “doughnut” speaks to those features). Indeed they bore a much closer resemblance to our modern-day doughnut “holes” than the inner tube-like shape we know today.

Yet the people of Rockport believe passionately that their local hero is the inventor of the modern doughnut. What kernel of truth there is in the Gregory story is probably lost to us.

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