November 15, 2017
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Doughnut Lassies on the Front Lines

Doughnuts may seem like a timeless piece of Americana, but they became popular in France, thanks to some resourceful young members of the Salvation Army.

When was the last time you took a good long look at a doughnut and said “thank you”? As we speak, there are doughnuts sitting out in break rooms and deli cases from coast to coast, going just a bit more stale from minute to minute, feeling overlooked and unloved. They’re stacked in neat little rows in wire baskets, watching you grab coffee each and every morning, wondering when you’re going to abandon that paleo life so you can be together again. They’ve become a staple of our daily lives we’ve taken for granted, but until the 1930s, they were nothing more than an occasional treat made in Dutch communities. So what did it take to rocket doughnuts out of obscurity and into our daily lives? Nothing short of the entire freaking world going to war, and two young women who risked their lives for fried pastry.

Our story begins on the European battlefront of World War I. Amidst the bombs, the gas, the terror and carnage, there was one army whose mission was not of destruction, but of comfort and care: the Salvation Army. The Protestant mission was well known for its work in city slums, where they built shelters and soup kitchens that cared for the destitute. In 1904 the Great Galveston Hurricane inspired them to mobilize those efforts, creating a battalion that would provide immediate care in the wake of major natural disasters.

In a few short years the greatest disasters would come not from acts of God but at the hands of men, in the form of war, yet the response was no different. There was a great war and great suffering in Europe, and the Salvation Army would attend to it. They were a small company, but they were mighty, and the impact they would have would be tremendous.

Twenty-two Salvation Army officers left the United States for the trenches of France in 1917, four of them women. Their mission: to make the boys forget about the unspeakable horrors of the battlefield in a good, wholesome, completely nonsexual way. They’d pass out mugs of hot cocoa while talkin’ ‘bout Jesus. They threw the most banging dance party in France, spinning hot tracks on the old Victrola. They made fudge.

And when morale still needed boosting, excess rations were collected to make a simple dough: flour, sugar, eggs, baking powder, canned milk. Bits were pinched off and hand rolled into simple crullers, then cooked in a soldier’s helmet filled with hot lard. The operation grew until the same two women were frying upwards of 2,500 doughnuts each day, which is possible when you stop frying things in helmets and ask the army to give you an actual pan to cook in.

The soldiers who were lucky enough to come home began requesting hot doughnuts from their wives and neighborhood bakeries, and soon they became a permanent part of the American culinary landscape. Their enthusiasm for this simple fried pastry was so tremendous that it begat the nickname that still, over a century later, means a soldier who fought in the Great War: doughboy.

Twenty-one years after the first doughnut was fried in the trenches, the Salvation Army faced another problem: The Great Depression had stretched their efforts with the poor quite thin, and with more people than ever struggling financially, donations were down. But when you’re an organization built of the kind of people who can change history with four hands, food scraps, and an old helmet, this was child’s play. They turned on the fryers and declared far and wide that the first Friday of every June would henceforth be known as National Donut Day: a day where dropping a few cents on a piping-hot doughnut wouldn’t just help the needy but would also serve to honor the brave lassies who marched to the front lines of one of the most horrifying events in history.

You don’t need to wait till National Donut Day to fry up some of these national treasures and honor the women who saved the world with carbs, but do make a point to spread the love around by making a few extra for friends, neighbors, the guys who work at the shop on the corner, as it is a documented, historical fact that doughnuts are meant to be shared so that they may spread joy. And raise your Venti half-cafe soy latte up high and say, “Thank you, doughnuts!” for all that they have done not only for all of us, but for freedom.

Photos courtesy of the Salvation Army


  • 4 cups flour, plus at least one cup extra for kneading and shaping
  • 2 cups sugar
  • 1 tablespoon plus 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1 can evaporated milk
  • 2 eggs
  • ¾ teaspoons salt
  • Oil or lard for frying

When writing this recipe I went through several drafts, tweaking here and there and trying to improve on the original cake doughnut recipe handed down by the doughnut lassies. Then I realized what I had been missing all along: There is no need for improvement or standardization, because the very thing that makes these doughnuts wonderful is their sense of necessity. You don’t need a fancy doughnut cutter; you don’t need a mixer; you don’t need any hacks or secret ingredients. If they’re a little oddly shaped or wonky-looking, that’s okay. Perfection isn’t the point here: It’s all about the intent.

Call your neighbors and tell them you’re bringing them some warm doughnuts. They’re best when they’re fresh, and better when they’re shared.

  1. Pour enough oil or lard into a large pot so it’s at least 4” deep. Insert a fry thermometer and bring to temperature over high heat, lowering to medium once the thermometer hits 370 degrees. Prepare a baking sheet (two, if you can) by lining it with paper towels and placing a wire rack over it.
  2. In a large bowl, stir together the flour, sugar, and baking powder with a large wooden spoon. Make a well in the center and add the evaporated milk, eggs, and salt, then mix well to break up eggs. Stir while slowly incorporating the dry ingredients, then continue to stir until everything appears to be well combined.
  3. Turn the dough out onto a well-floured board, dump about a cup of flour into a pile off to the side, and make sure your hands are well coated in the stuff. Knead the dough until smooth, using a dough scraper or metal spatula to scrape up any bits that stick, adding more flour in small amounts as necessary.
  4. Once oil is fully heated, once again lightly dust your hands with flour and pinch off a piece of dough slightly larger than a golf ball. Gently roll it between your palms to make a rope about ¾” thick, give or take, then pinch the edges together to make a ring. It does not have to be pretty. Seriously, what sort of monster is going to look at a plate of hot doughnuts and complain that they’re not perfectly round. Those are not the type of people you should be making doughnuts for. Ban them from your house.
  5. Gently lower your precious, hand-rolled doughnut into the oil. It will sink to the bottom, then rise after a few seconds. Using a chopstick or the back of a thin wooden spoon, flip the doughnut over after 30 seconds, and continue flipping intermittently until both sides are a beautiful golden brown. Fish the doughnut out either by using a spider or by slipping the chopstick through the hole and gently easing it out of the hot oil. Place on the prepared baking sheet to drain.
  6. Depending on the size of your pot, you can fry four or five doughnuts at a time, but don’t overcrowd the pan—too many will cause the temperature of the oil to drop, which will result in greasy doughnuts
  7. Depending on your shaping skills, you’ll end up with anywhere from 30 to 40 doughnuts.

Allison Robicelli

Allison Robicelli is a D-list celebrity-chef chef, author, humorist, entrepreneur, general polymath, and all-around good time. You may remember her from such places as Food52, Eater, Food Network, VH1, and many other quirky corners of the food Internet. She is the author of the critically acclaimed cookbook/memoir Robicelli's: A Love Story, With Cupcakes, which has been called one of the funniest food-related books of all time. You should buy it.

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