Scientist: Donuts helped shape our culture

July 23, 2008 7:56:41 PM PDT
Paul Mullins is a serious scholar who has studied heavy issues like racism and materialism, but now he has turned his attention to a really weighty subject: donuts. Give that man a calorie-rich donut, smothered with colorful chunks of sugar, and he's immediately in hog heaven.

For some time now, Mullins, an Indiana University-Purdue University, Indianapolis anthropologist and archaeologist, has been sitting around donut shops, gulping down those sweets and talking to other customers about why they do the same -- especially when just about everyone knows that too many donuts can make your waist balloon.

Mullins, who runs at least 40 miles a week and is a bit of a lean machine, knows the perils of an unhealthy diet, but he plugs away at his research anyway because donuts, he said, can tell us a lot about ourselves.

"The thing that struck me about donuts" when he began his research a few years ago, he said in a telephone interview, "is nobody is sitting on the fence. There are very few things like that, where people are either fervently attached to, or strongly opposed to, donuts. Nobody is muddling through on middle ground."

And that, he added, suggests that there is more at work here than the biological urge to satisfy a sweet tooth.

"If we just boil it down to biology, it's much tougher to understand food," he said. "We can eat anything if it's not toxic, and somebody across time has eaten virtually everything."

So why do we cling to foods that are at least somewhat toxic and even though they could fuel a very serious obesity epidemic?

"There's something socially telling in that," he said. Some people are committed to maintaining their body within certain parameters, and "there are other people who are very much in touch with their desires and they understand that they like donuts a lot and they are not going to deny themselves because they have been denied so many other things in their lives. Donuts for them are incredibly meaningful and powerful and they aren't going to give them up for 300 calories of discipline."

Mullins has documented the arrival of the precursor of the donut in this country in the 1800s, when the Dutch pastry, olykoek, showed up in New York and other cities. By the mid-19th century, according to his research, that pastry had evolved into the donuts we see today, and it had become a decidedly American food.

And it was, at least in the early days, somewhat class-distinctive. It was food for the working man, not a tasty morsel for the idle rich.

To some degree, he argues in his just-released book, "Glazed America: A History of the Doughnut," the element of class lingers today.

"A lot of people still look at donuts that way," he said. There's a working-class side to its image, but it can also appeal to the upwardly mobile executive who "wants to feel somewhat retro, downwardly mobile, by consuming a donut."

But the real driving force, he said, is something most of us know too well: self-indulgence.

It's not just based on biological addiction.

"It's a recognition of your personal desires and a way to act them out," Mullins said. Food, he said, has always had a social dimension, "even in the earliest reaches of prehistory." That social dimension was born, he said, the first time hominids sat around a fire and pigged out.

But now we have become a car culture, people on the move, in a hurry, looking for a quick bite of something just a tad wicked. And the car, Mullins argues, is the donut's best friend. You can eat a donut with one hand, leaving the other hand free to answer the cell phone, wave to friends and dodge through traffic.

All these social factors have changed the mom-and-pop donut shop into a slick chain with drive-up windows, treats that are both upscale and downscale, and oh-so-American.

Health concerns notwithstanding, Mullins sees nothing wrong with an occasional visit to the corner donut shop.

"It doesn't strike me as a big contradiction," he said. "Donuts are a treat. I recognize desire, I can articulate my desires, and every once in a while..."

In fact, just hours before the interview, Mullins stopped at the small donut shop that he passes on his frequent runs. He wasn't looking for a carrot. Or a plate of sushi. He was looking for the real deal.

"They had these cupcakes that must be 500 calories," he said. "I don't want to know what's inside them. I'm sure there's some lard or fat-like substance, and they were frosted with sprinkles.

"If you had told me in the car that they were going to have these cupcakes I would have said, 'Naw, I don't want one.' But that powerful yeast smell hit me when I came in the door, and I saw those cupcakes and I thought, well, man."

He said he would go for a long run later in the day.

Lee Dye is a former science writer for the Los Angeles Times. He now lives in Juneau, Alaska.