Monday, December 15, 2008

Why are Doughnuts Round?

Why are doughnuts round? Why do they have a hole in the middle? If you can understand the visual appeal of the doughnut, you can recognize many of the environmental triggers that urge you to eat.

There is an obvious historical answer to the question, and a less obvious response that has to do with the way human beings see. Many food historians attribute the invention of the doughnut hole to a New England sea captain, Hanson Gregory. Gregory’s ship was named Frypan, and he fed his sailors “fried cakes,” made according to his mother’s recipe. The problem with these otherwise delicious cakes was that their centers seldom fully cooked. In 1847, Gregory tried cooking them after he had punched out the center of the cake. Once all of the doughnut lay near a surface, it cooked more evenly.

There are other stories of the invention of the doughnut. One attributes the first doughnut to a Vermonter named Shadrach Gowallapus Hooper, and another claims that the first doughnut was made when Indians shot an arrow into a Pilgrim woman’s frying pot so they could steal the cakes, the arrow making a hole in the dough and the first doughnut. Fried cakes with a hole in the middle, however, are common only in cultures where food is abundant.

An Indian poori is hollowed out in the middle so the entire cake cooks evenly, but the hole in the middle is not obvious. Gogosi and trandafiri in Romania and Moldava are also cooked without making an obvious whole in the middle. New Orleans does not suffer a shortage of food, but shortchanging food is not appreciated, so the “doughnut” in New Orleans is a beignet, which also has a hole on the inside that cannot be seen as the pastry is presented.

The universal appeal of a round doughnut is that we have a doughnut-shaped field of vision. We see the world in rounds. When we look at a round doughnut, the outer edges of the doughnut are all we see. The hole in the middle is not noticed. We do not look for food in the middle of the doughnut unless we are hungry. Bakers can leave out the dough in the middle without making us feel cheated, unless we live in a culture of chronic food shortages or chronic food obsession.

Similarly, a round plate looks full. Everyday food is served on round plates and in round bowls. A square plate or a square bowl forces us to evaluate our food with our other senses, so gourmet chefs use square plates to introduce diners to a new taste. If we see a square plate, we evaluate the food on the basis of color, aroma, and taste, rather than quantity.

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