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Comments & Curiosities: The magical dollar-maker with a hole

You've heard them a thousand times — cops and doughnut jokes.

"Need a cop? Try a Winchell's."

"How does a police sergeant know his people are taking too many breaks? Their eyes are glazed."

Go ahead and tease Costa Mesa Police Officer Jess Gilman about the doughnut thing all you want. He's heard it all before and he has some great cops and doughnuts lines of his own.

That's because in his free time Gilman is the proud proprietor of Gilman's Donuts, a donut shop on wheels that has become a fixture at Newport-Mesa sporting events and fundraisers. Gilman sells mini-doughnuts by the bag from his squeaky-clean cart and when he says they are hot and fresh, it's no joke.

You can watch them being shaped, cooked and sprinkled on the spot, ready to please your palate and annoy your cardiologist. It's all done with an automatic mixer-shaper-fryer-thing from a Minneapolis company called Lil' Orbits. Get it? Mini-donuts? Lil' Orbits? It's like a joke.

It is fascinating to watch — the birth of a mini-donut before your eyes. The Lil' Orbits website explains how it all works.

"Doughnuts to dollars … the aroma attracts 'em … the action fascinates 'em."

Gilman, who was recently profiled by the Orange County Register, would advise people to not get too caught up in the doughnuts to dollars part, though. It's his passion, but it's really a labor of love. If you're planning on making a fortune selling mini-donuts at high school football games, you need another plan. But people love Gilman and his magic doughnut machine, which is more than enough reward for him.

But here is my question: Who started the whole doughnut thing, which is not to be confused with the doughnut hole thing, anyway? And did whoever it was have any idea what they started? Probably not. Even though some people live for things like doughnuts and buffalo wings, nailing down who actually churned out the first one ever is hard.

Americans eat, munch, devour and otherwise consume about 10 billion doughnuts a year, which comes to about 30 doughnuts per annum for every American — which is a lot of doughnuts. Can anyone legitimately claim to be the mother, or father, cousin maybe, of the doughnut?

After extensive research at the BBBBBMI — the Better Buffa Bureau of Banal Bits of Meaningless Information — the answer appears to be no. The problem is that people have been frying sweetened batter in oil about as long as there have been people and oil, which is a long time.

Most donutologists say it all started in a place called New York, when it was still called New Amsterdam and chock full of Dutch colonists. The Dutch were very proud of a fried pastry called "olykoeks," which is Dutch for "may cause thunder thighs."

No, it isn't. It means oily cakes, which only makes sense. Using the alternate spelling, Washington Irving mentions "doughnuts" in his 1809 "History of New York" and calls them "…balls of sweetened dough fried in hog's fat and called doughnuts or olykoeks."

The hog's fat is a little worrisome, but my guess is that what they're talking about are what we would call doughnut holes. If they looked anything like our doughnuts, I doubt Washington Irving, who was good with words, would have called them "balls of sweetened dough."

So where did the donuts that we know and love today come from?

The possible but by no means certain answer is from New England. About 1850, a woman named Elizabeth Gregory was the proud mom of a ship's captain named Hanson Gregory. Worried that her boy wasn't eating right on those long ocean voyages, Liz came up with the highly questionable solution of a fried pastry she called a doughnut because she stuffed the centers with nuts and spices.

The legend goes that one night, in the middle of a wicked bad storm, Capt. Gregory was gnawing on one of his mom's deep-fried fat bombs when the sea became so nasty that Hansen needed both hands on the wheel, and with nowhere to stash his doughnut, jammed it onto one of the wheel's spokes and, voilà! The doughnut hole was born.

I'm sorry, but I'm going to need a little more documentation before I swallow that story, with or without the hole. Granted, the town of Clam Cove, Maine, does have a plaque that salutes Gregory as the father of the doughnut hole, but I'm guessing there wasn't a boatload of possibilities when the Clam Cove Town Council went in search of Clam Coveans to honor.

So who invented doughnuts? Who knows? Your guess is as good as mine and probably not as good as Jess Gilman's, none of which matters to Jess or his customers. As long as the magic Lil' Orbits machine is pumping out the circular munchies, it's all good.

Doughnuts. They're what built this country.

PETER BUFFA is a former Costa Mesa mayor. His column runs Sundays. He may be reached at ptrb4@aol.com.

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