I was in college before I succumbed to the lure of doughnuts. For all those years before I had turned down offers of donut holes dusted with powdered sugar and cinnamon, glazed donuts plain or filled with jam or custard, frosted with chocolate, or maple bars that sent a zing of sugar straight to your bloodstream. This is not to say that I was immune to the pleasures of fried dough; I spent childhood summers in Taipei eating breakfasts of fried crullers, sticks of dough eaten plain or wrapped in a sort of sesame biscuit, accompanied by bowls of hot, sweet soy milk (it came plain, or savory, which is how my parents drank it, or sweet, which is how I preferred it).
Later, in Spanish class we would make churros. Their fluted lengths came frozen, wrapped in plastic. We crowded into the small kitchen overlooking the gym (why our middle school had a little kitchen at the end of the upstairs main hallway - the library was at the other end - remains a mystery to me), baked them in the oven until they were crisp, and then rolled the hot pastry in a pan of sugar. I can see Señora Blat pouring cascades of white sugar into a shallow baking dish, throwing the churros in with her bare hands. (Some months ago I bought a churro at Costco. It cost about a dollar and was sweet and spicy with cinnamon sugar and I was twelve years old again. It was a strange feeling).
But it wasn't until a Krispy Kreme opened up in Rochester, New York (where I went to college) and I acquired a car that I turned to doughnuts. It was open all night! They gave away free doughnuts! They had a drive-through window! It was so exciting to stand behind the glass windows inside the store and watch rows of doughnuts traveling down the conveyor belt, being flipped into the hot oil and turned over, golden all over, sent through a curtain of the liquid glaze and emerging on the other side, perfectly frosted and waiting to be handed over in paper envelopes. We would buy a box, plain glazed or filled with chocolate or cream or jelly, no frosting or chocolate frosting or sprinkles. Drive home and gather in our living room. Outside there would be three feet of snow and biting winds but inside we had doughnuts and milk and each other.
Now that era has passed, and there is no one left from that time. Now Krispy Kreme doughnuts seem sweet and puffy and bland, like marshmallows, without heft, without depth (although, like marshmallows, sometimes you just need one). But D. calls from Starbucks to see if anyone wants coffee, and I remember that they have doughnuts from Top Pot, the local doughnut place. Their doughnuts are more cake-like, without the stretch of a yeast dough. I can feel my teeth breaking through the frail crust of the glaze, like the barest lace of ice across a pond. There is a mug of hot tea at my elbow, and I think about Laura Ingalls Wilder writing about her husband as a little boy, watching his mother twisting doughnuts and frying them, declaring that the then "new-fangled" round doughnuts were ridiculous because she didn't have time to stand around turning them over, whereas the twisted ones rolled over and turned themselves. In a corner of my mind I can see her standing there over a pot of hot oil, twists of doughnuts turning over and over in the roiling oil as they turn golden and are lifted out to drain. And I eat my so-called "old-fashioned" doughnut that tastes like rich cake and boiled sugar, and I am happy.