Novelty holidays tend to be gimmicky. National Hot Dog Day started out as a lobbying event for the North American Meat Institute. More altruistically, the UN declared June 1 World Milk Day as a way to get people to consume more milk. And National Catfish Day owes its beginnings to a presidential proclamation from Ronald Reagan. “I call upon the people of the United States to observe this day with appropriate ceremonies and activities,” the document reads, which is more formal, certainly, but still schtick.
It would be easy to assume National Donut Day, held every year on the first Friday of June, had a similarly bland origin story. But the real history is far more charming.
Donut Day can trace its beginnings to World War I, when approximately 250 American women volunteered with the Salvation Army to head to Europe and operate comfort stations for soldiers serving at the front. Because it was more fuel-efficient and required less cooking equipment to fry oil than it did to heat an oven, the women turned to donuts as a hot, sweet food they could serve to enlisted men. There are even stories of these women frying donuts in overturned helmets.
The women offered letter-writing materials, clothes-mending services, first-aid and coffee, but donuts were the real hit, and the women were affectionately referred to as “doughnut girls,” “doughnut lasses” and “doughnut dollies,” the latter the namesake of the now-closed Doughnut Dolly franchise.
In 1938, the Salvation Army hosted the first ever Donut Day event in Chicago as a relief effort for Americans affected by the Great Depression and to honor the service of these women. Only a few short years later, the Salvation Army revived the tradition of the donut stations as the U.S. entered World War II. The Red Cross followed suit, and women serving with either organization were referred to as doughnut girls.
Rosie the Riveter may be the most familiar icon of can-do Americanism but the doughnut girls are possibly just as inspiring. Not everyone can work a rivet gun, but almost anyone can fry up sugared dough. The humble donut goes to war. Heat the oil. Hoist a cruller. Trounce the Kaiser. It’s enough to make one feel patriotic for the pastry.
Found in every state and eminently consumable 24 hours a day, the donut is the universal American pastry, something we can all enjoy, regardless of class, origin or upbringing. And given the fraught nature of current national politics, they may just well be one of the few things as Americans we can all of us still agree on.
Here are just a few of the shops serving up some of the Berkeley and Oakland’s best donuts.
KING PIN DONUTS
Save yourself a trip to Willy Wonka’s factory, at Berkeley’s King Pin you can see donuts mixed, proofed, fried and glazed right before your eyes. Most days of the week, baker Quan Lai makes fresh donuts until 10 p.m., and til midnight on weekends during Cal’s academic year.
“The plain glazed are my favorite,” said Lai. “I eat a lot of those.”
Lai feels more comfortable handling frying donuts with chopsticks than he does with forks or tongs. With one extra long stick in each hand, he flips the frying rings of dough over from front to back then glazes, ices or powders them and sets them on a rack by the front window to cool. To watch him is to see an artist at work. There must be some magic involved. But no. “Experience is the secret,” said Lai.
Lai grew up in Cholon, the Chinese neighborhood of Saigon, and moved to the U.S. more than 30 years ago, and has been working with donuts ever since. He has three children — a daughter who graduated from Cal two years ago with a degree in economics, a younger daughter currently enrolled as a biology undergraduate at Cal and a son in high school.
“Sometimes I help the students,” he said, in reference to the usual customers. King Pin is only a block away from the Cal campus. “I give them a free donut. I know those students don’t have a lot of money.”
A small coffee and a plain donut costs a reasonable $3.25. King Pin is open seven days a week from 7 a.m. to 3 a.m.
King Pin Donuts, 2521 Durant Ave. (between Telegraph and Bowditch), Berkeley
DREAM FLUFF DONUTS
Berkeley doesn’t have a full 24-hour donut shop. There as yet remains an one-hour gap between when King Pin closes at 3 a.m. and when Dream Fluff Donuts on Ashby opens at 4.
“A lot of people get off work early,” said co-owner Nasin Bun, explaining the reason for the early morning hours. Dream Fluff is a favorite stop for healthcare workers coming off the night shift at nearby Alta Bates Summit Medical Center and does most of its business between the hours of 5 and 7 a.m.
Bun works the shop with her husband and co-owner Alex Sieu. They divide up work between them, with Bun working the mornings and afternoons, while Sieu does the graveyard shift, arriving at Dream Fluff at midnight to prepare the next day’s donuts.
The shop offers donuts and savory diner options, such as scrambled eggs and hamburgers, depending on time of day, in addition to items of light convenience, like bottled milk, chewing gum and Advil. Dream Fluff eschews the artisanal trends of many newer donut shops to stick with the classics. Long johns. Jam-filled. Chocolate glazed with rainbow sprinkles. A small coffee and small cinnamon roll cost $3.25.
The shop has been a neighborhood donut stop since 1937, and customer Gary Bass has been coming for the past seven years. Bass lives in Concord, a long way to drive to Berkeley for a bag of donuts and a small coffee. Bass summed up the reasons for his visit in four short words. “Doctor’s appointment,” he said, gesturing down Ashby. “Sweet tooth,” he added with a shrug.
He likes the mom-and-pop feel here. “It’s different from going to a commercial place,” Bass said. “[Dream Fluff is] kind of a cultural icon of Berkeley.”
Dream Fluff is open Monday through Friday, 4 a.m. to 6 p.m., Sunday, 6:30 a.m. to 2 p.m.
Dream Fluff Donuts, 2637 Ashby Ave. (at College), Berkeley
Donuts get the bauhaus treatment at Donut Savant. The sleek glass and stainless steel storefront in downtown Oakland features assorted fashionable updates to old standards, and a clientele who might well be described the same way. The offerings range from the Jewish sufganiyot (SOOF-gone-ee-OAT) standing in for the familiar jelly-filled donut, to the more daring Sean Pecan-ery, a fried confection of toffee, nuts and dough. But the true figure to carry this production is the cron’t, a square-shaped hybrid of a donut and a croissant.
This donut is advertised as a ‘salted maple croissant donut hybrid (cronut).’ Don’t call it a “cronut” however, which is a name trademarked by New York’s Dominique Ansel bakery. If you must call the cron’t something other than its name, call it delicious.
One cron’t and a small latte cost $5, tax included.
Donut Savant is popular on most days, but patrons looking to load up for Donut Day would be wise to pre-order via the website (Keep this in mind for next year). Even with the store doing double time, customer overload can be a bit much, explained brand ambassador Sam Gebru.
“This place gets crazy on Donut Day,” said Gebru. “There’ll be a line out the door down to the parking lot starting at 8 a.m.”
Donut Savant is open Tuesday through Saturday, 8 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Donut Savant, 1934 Broadway (between 19th and 20th), Oakland
Punk isn’t dead, it just hangs out in a vegan donut shop on San Pablo Avenue in Oakland (and since 2014, at a second location on Gilman Street in Berkeley too). Donut Farm first began as the much loved donut darling Pepples Donuts. The flagship Oakland store has been around for seven years, although it can be a bit hard to find as there is no sign out front, unless one counts the giant pink fiberglass donut propped against the wall outside as a sign.
“We wanted a space that’s welcoming to families but still old-school punk,” explained front-of-house staffer, Cyrus Monahan-Duran. Donut Farm’s interior has the cobbled-together look of a classic diner combined with a vinyl album cover. And the menu is both delicious and uncompromising.
Donut Farm specializes in cake donuts, that is, ones that use baking powder rather than yeast as a leavening agent. A coffee, a vanilla cookie donut, plus one refill, cost $6.27. Diners on a budget can get a plain cake donut and a small coffee for $5.50.
Donut Farm is open Monday through Friday, 7:30 a.m. to 3 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Donut Farm, 6037 San Pablo Ave. (between 60th and 61st), Oakland
GOLDEN GATE DONUTS
Golden Gate Donuts in Temescal is a classic neighborhood donut shop. Tile floor, fluorescent lighting, losing lottery tickets discarded on the tables and a glass display of standard donuts in all their glistening bounty. Aside from the fritters, owner Brian Ngauv recommends the old-fashioned cake donuts. “They have a little crack to them,” he said. One of these plus a coffee cost $2.45.
“Donuts are funny things. Very particular,” explained Ngauv. “Too much water and the donuts rise too quickly. Too little and they don’t rise at all.”
If asked, Ngauv will detail his entire method for making apple fritters, betraying an open secret of the industry in the process. The fritters are just made from leftover dough, chopped and mixed with apples.
You don’t need much education to work at a donut shop, Ngauv admitted, but you do need a good work ethic and attention to detail. The recipe is not complicated but does not allow many mistakes. Distraction is not permissible. Once out of the fryer, they cannot sit too long on the cooling rack or they will bind to the grill and tear apart. “Whatever you do, try not to rip all the skin off the dough.”
Like many Bay Area donut shop owners, Ngauv is Cambodian, and began working at local franchise Happy Donuts more than 30 years ago before owning Golden Gate.
He has seen his kids and now his grandkids grow up in the process, and now the neighborhood kids too, which is something Ngauv likes about Temescal. Most of the customers greet Ngauv by name, and Ngauv greets them by name as well, or if not, then by their usual order.
“I love this location,” he said, “I’m surprised how much people look out for you here.”
It’s easy to do well in donuts, “if you’re willing to work hard,” said Ngauv.
Golden Gate Donuts is open Monday through Friday, 5 a.m. to 8 p.m., Saturday, 5:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. and Sunday, 5:30 a.m. to 7 p.m.
Golden Gate Donuts, 4201 Telegraph Ave. (at 42nd), Oakland