The strange thing about University of Toronto historian Steve Penfold’s new book, The Donut: A Canadian History, is that you can get through its 200-odd pages without ever experiencing a craving for a donut. Not that there is really that much to say about the aesthetic experience of eating or cooking donuts, but Penfold seems decidedly determined here to distance himself – and his reader – from any vicarious enjoyment of his titular treat. The book may be a history of a culinary good, but make no mistake: it is not a good culinary history.
What Penfold does to build a wall between us and those delicious, gooey rings of artery-clogging sweetness is cite data. Reading like a corporate annual report – but for an entire industry over a period of almost a century – The Donut laboriously surveys the commercialization of domestic donutselling (to coin a term). Starting with the invention and proliferation of automated donut-cooking machines in the 1920s, ’30s, and ’40s, Penfold moves through the emergence of dedicated donut shops in the 1950s and ’60s to the birth and flourishing of the franchise system that has given us today’s cult of Tim Hortons.
Penfold virtually ignores the donut’s lowly pop-culture charm, choosing instead to dwell on such banal dynamics as the donut’s link to networks of commodity distribution (i.e., sugar and wheat), how the growth of the automobile industry drove donut sales upward, and this reader’s favourite, “the relationship between entrepreneurial identity and the franchise experience.”
Too often when we encounter a delicious crumb of humanity in this book – the flirtations of female counter servers, fat-cheeked boys in a donut-eating contest, a drunken midnight donut baker, the crowning of the annual Donut Queen – Penfold, like some kind of literary dietitian, quickly steers us away toward another wholesome helping of dry, flavourless facts and stats.
“The culture of donut shops was built on the quotidian and the mundane,” writes Penfold. So, clearly, was The Donut. To quote an American donut-eating icon, Penfold forgot one very important thing: “Mmm … donuts.”