Ruthie and the language of doughnuts

The One Big Happy from July 5th, in which Ruthie and Joe get some dubious advice from their father:


Their dad’s advice will no doubt warm the hearts of language teachers and multiculturalists, but it’s dubious as practical advice for everyday life.

Meanwhile, Ruthie wrestles with the question of how to get a language name from the noun doughnut / donut. Donuttish (with an all-purpose adjective-forming suffix, –ish) would certainly be possible, but, probably on the model of Dutch, Ruthie goes for Donutch, that is, Donut-ch (this is spoken, rather than written, by Ruthie, so it could have been spelled Donutsh, like Welsh).

(It tickles me to think of the language name as Dutchnut, a portmanteau of Dutch and doughnut. Or maybe that should be the name of the food.)

In any event, Ruthie has stumbled slant-wise onto the idea that doughnuts are of Dutch origin — an idea that confuses words and things, labels and the categories they label, but nevertheless incorporates a genuine bit of history.

The Wikipedia entry has an initial section about doughnuts as a category of food, with many variants in different cultures and (though it doesn’t say this) potentially many different names in different languages:

(#2) A display of assorted foodstuffs called doughnuts in American English

A doughnut or donut is a type of fried dough confection or dessert food. The doughnut is popular in many countries and prepared in various forms as a sweet snack that can be homemade or purchased in bakeries, supermarkets, food stalls, and franchised specialty vendors.

Doughnuts are usually deep fried from a [wheat] flour dough, and typically either ring-shaped or a number of shapes without a hole, and often filled, but can also be ball-shaped (“doughnut holes”). Other types of batters can also be used, and various toppings and flavorings are used for different types, such as sugar, chocolate, or maple glazing. Doughnuts may also include water, leavening, eggs, milk, sugar, oil, shortening, and natural or artificial flavors.

The two most common types are the ring doughnut and the filled doughnut, which is injected with fruit preserves, cream, custard, or other sweet fillings. Alternatively, small pieces of dough are sometimes cooked as doughnut holes. Once fried, doughnuts may be glazed with a sugar icing, spread with icing or chocolate on top, or topped with powdered sugar or sprinkles or fruit. Other shapes include rings, balls, flattened spheres, twists, and other forms. Doughnut varieties are also divided into cake (including the old-fashioned [in the shape of a ring with tapered edges around it]) and yeast-risen type doughnuts.

Two examples of cake doughnuts (essentially deep-fried cupcakes), both toroidal

(#3) On the Betty Crocker site: cake doughnuts with rainbow glaze

(#4) Old-fashioned cake doughnuts, in several flavors

The category in question is what I’ll call FSD, for (DEEP-)FRIED SWEET DOUGH, which is typically, but not invariably, wheat-based yeast dough; and which is crucially significantly 3-dimensional — in the shape of a small cake or loaf or ball or toroid — rather than flat, as in the Latin American fried pastry sopapillas.

Some regional styles of FSD foods. First, from some Germanic lands.

Northern Germany. From Wikipedia:

A Berliner Pfannkuchen (referred to as Berliner for short) is a traditional German pastry similar to [an American] doughnut with no central hole, made from sweet yeast dough fried in fat or oil, with a marmalade or jam filling and usually icing, powdered sugar or conventional sugar on top. They are sometimes made with chocolate, champagne, custard, mocha, or advocaat filling, or with no filling at all

Allemannic regions and the Palatinate: The Alemannic regions — Bavaria, Austria, Germanophone Switzerland, and Alsace — and the Rheinland-Palatinate region of Germany, the principal homeland of the Pennsylvania German (“Pennsylvania Dutch”) people. Here the FSD pastry is the fasnacht / fastnacht, especially made for the Carnival, or Fasching, season, just before Lent begins, but in fact enjoyed year-round. See my 3/8/11 posting “Fasnacht Day” (which also mentions Polish pączki).

In the Pa. Dutch English of my childhood, fasnacht was simply a synonym for doughnut, but of course the American English term was swamping the Pa. Dutch one, which eventually came to be used only in the name Fasnacht Day ‘Shrove Tuesday, Mardi Gras’.

The Low Countries. From Wikipedia:

An oliebol (also olykoek [the older name]) is a traditional Dutch and Belgian food. They are called oliebollen (literally: oil balls) in the Netherlands, while in Belgium they are also called smoutebollen (literally: lard balls although the real “smout” is of rapeseed oil) and croustillons (loosely: crispies) in French. In English they are more commonly known as Dutch doughnuts or dutchies. In the distant region of Istria, now split [between] the countries of Italy, Croatia and Slovenia, a variation of this dish is called fritole, fritule and blinci. In Serbia they are called krofne. Also,in Ghana, West Africa, they are known locally as bofrot or bofflot.

… Oliebollen are traditionally eaten on New Year’s Eve and at funfairs. In wintertime, they are also sold in the street at mobile stalls.

Then from some Romance-language areas.

Hispanophone areas and beyond. More fried sweet dough balls. From Wikipedia:

A buñuelo … is a fried dough ball. It is a popular snack in Venezuela, Argentina, Belize, Bolivia, Colombia, Cuba, Ecuador, El Salvador, Greece, Guam, Guatemala, Israel, Mexico, Morocco, Nicaragua, the Philippines, Puerto Rico, Spain, Turkey, Uruguay, and Venezuela. It traditionally prepared at Christmas, Ramadan, and among Sephardic Jews at Hanukkah. It will usually have a filling or a topping. In Mexican cuisine, it is often served with a syrup made with piloncillo [unrefined whole cane sugar].

Buñuelos are first known to have been consumed among Spain’s Morisco population. They typically consist of a simple, wheat-based yeast dough, often flavored with anise, that is thinly rolled, cut or shaped into individual pieces, then fried and finished off with a sweet topping. Buñuelos may be filled with a variety of things, sweet or savory. They can be round in ball shapes or disc shaped. In Latin America, buñuelos are seen as a symbol of good luck.

France, New Orleans, and beyond. From Wikipedia:

Beignet (… literally bump), synonymous with the English “fritter”, is the French term for a pastry made from deep-fried choux pastry. Beignets may also be made from other types of dough, including yeast dough.

… The term beignet can be applied to two varieties, depending on the type of pastry. The French-style beignet in the United States, has the specific meaning of deep-fried choux pastry. Beignets can also be made with yeast pastry, which might be called boules de Berlin in French, referring to Berliner doughnuts which have a spherical shape (in other words, they do not have the typical doughnut hole) filled with fruit or jam.

Well, not really synonymous with fritter. From NOAD:

noun fritter: a piece of fruit, vegetable, or meat that is coated in batter and deep-fried. ORIGIN late Middle English: from Old French friture, based on Latin frigere (see fry). Compare with frittata.

(Think of fritters as European tempura. Though in fact Japanese tempura was significantly influenced by Portuguese cooking.)

This only scratches the surface. There’s a huge variety of specific food preparations, known under a bewildering variety of local names (with usage changing over time).

The history of doughnuts. From the Wikipedia article, with a crucial bit boldfaced:

While food resembling doughnuts has been found at many ancient sites, the earliest origins [for] the modern doughnuts are generally traced back to the olykoek (“oil(y) cake”) Dutch settlers brought with them to early New York (or New Amsterdam). These doughnuts closely resembled later ones but did not yet have their current ring-sized shape. One of the earliest mentions of “doughnut” was in Washington Irving’s 1809 book A History of New York, from the Beginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty [“balls of sweetened dough, fried in hog’s fat, and called dough-nuts [that is, dough-cakes], or oly koeks”].

This is not about the origins of modern doughnuts (the food), but rather is about the first uses of the word doughnut in English. The FSD food that the Dutch introduced to New Amsterdam had a previous history in the Low Countries and was similar to other foodstuffs being prepared around Europe under various names (and then in continental European regions in America: in Pa. Dutch and Swiss settlements, French areas, and Alta California in Mexican times).

In any case, the word doughnut in English seems to date from around the beginning of the 19th century and to have spread along with the FSD, as a characteristic American food. The toroidal doughnut — now the prototypical American doughnut — seems to be a 19th-century thing, and mostly American.

The whole topic cries out for a cultural historian cum lexicographer with skills far beyond mine.

Bonus. Another bit of Dutch-derived Americana: the cruller, a doughnut with a twist. From NOAD:


noun cruller: North American a small cake made of rich, sweetened dough twisted or curled and fried in deep fat. ORIGIN early 19th century: from Dutch kruller, from krullen ‘to curl’.

[Big addendum 8/4, thanks to Mike Pope, who brings up four matters.

1: Do churros conform to donut grammar?

Let me plead again that my survey above is just a sampling of FSD foods, with no pretense to being complete (just sticking to Europe, I barely touched on FSD foods in Scandinavia, the Slavic lands, the Baltics, the Balkans, Italy, or Greece).

But the answer to the question is yes, definitely. From Wikipedia:

A churro … is a fried-dough pastry — predominantly choux — based snack. Churros are traditional in Spain and Portugal – from where they originate – as well as the Philippines and Ibero-America. They are also consumed in the Southwestern United States, France and other areas that have received immigration from Spanish and Portuguese-speaking countries. In Spain, churros can either be thin (and sometimes knotted) or long and thick, where they are known as porras in some regions. They are normally eaten for breakfast dipped in champurrado, hot chocolate, dulce de leche or café con leche. Sugar is often sprinkled on top.

So: fried dough with sweet stuff.  Note that choux (which came up above in connection with beignets) is not itself sweet (though you could add sweetening to it), so it serves as the basis for both sweet and savory preparations. From Wikipedia:

Choux pastry, or pâte à choux, is a light pastry dough used to make profiteroles, croquembouches, éclairs, French crullers, beignets, St. Honoré cake, quenelles, Parisian gnocchi, dumplings, gougères, chouquettes, craquelins and churros. It contains only butter, water, flour and eggs. Instead of a raising agent, it employs high moisture content to create steam during cooking to puff the pastry. The pastry is used in many European and European-derived cuisines.

Fried dough can be sweet or unsweetened (and therefore usable in savory dishes). Yorkshire pudding, for instance, is fried dough cakes, unsweetened. From Wikipedia:

Yorkshire pudding is a common British side dish consisting of a baked pudding [cooked in the drippings from roasting meat] made from batter consisting of eggs, flour, and milk or water. It is a versatile food that can be served in numerous ways depending on the choice of ingredients, the size of the pudding and the accompanying components of the dish. As a first course it can be served with onion gravy. For a main course it is often served with beef and gravy and is part of the traditional Sunday roast, but can also be filled with foods such as bangers and mash to make a meal.

2: Tantalizing evidence among your cites that donuts had at various times been fried in lard. I wonder what that would taste like.

Chunks of dough (of whatever shape, of whatever composition — leavened (by yeast or baking powder or whatever) or not, sweetened or not) can be fried in various oils:

vegetable oil: canola (rape), cottonseed (as in Crisco), corn, peanut, olive, sunflower, safflower

animal oil: lard (pig fat), beef drippings, rendered (clarified) chicken or goose fat (schmaltz)

As far as I know, I haven’t had doughnuts fried in lard, but if the lard is rendered and very hot, I suspect they’d be hard to distinguish from doughnuts fried in one of the usual neutral vegetable oils (canola or cottonseed).

It does look like Dutch olykoeks were frequently fried in lard. In fact, on farms, animal fats would have been easily available, while vegetable fats would usually have had to be purchased, so frying in animal fat would have probably been quite common.

3: Would Dan Jurafsky be the person to sort out all this terminology, present and past?

I did check, and doughnuts / donuts and the other FSD foods above don’t seem to be in Dan’s Language of Food book, though he’s surely thought about the topic. But it would be a gigantic undertaking. In any case, I will pester him with this posting.

4: Side note: donut outings are a feature of LSA [Linguistic Society of America} conferences, as Heidi Harley can attest.

Heidi and Steph Shih, who were, I think, together the originators of the tradition. (I haven’t been to an LSA meeting since 2005, so I’m out of the loop on these customs.) Among other thngs, it provides an occasion for a group of linguists to escape the conference hotel  together for a brief interlude.]

2 Responses to “Ruthie and the language of doughnuts”

  1. arnold zwicky Says:

    Dan Jurafsky deftly deflected my gentle prod by saying that he enjoyed this posting immensely and that doughnuts would indeed be a fun topic to look at.

    I was hoping he had a file on the topic aready, but apparently not.

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