Rockport, Maine, Tuesday 2 November 1847
As the ship tossed upon the turbulent sea, Captain Hanson Gregory had to make a snap decision. If he didn’t put both of his hands on the ship’s steering wheel very soon, there was every chance the ship would keel over. But to do that would mean risking the loss of the olykoek, the delicious cake that the ship’s cook had concocted using a recipe dear old Mrs Gregory had sent him. And then a bolt of genius shot through the hardy mariner, and he rammed his cake onto one of the spokes of the wheel.
Hours later, when calmness had returned to the ocean, the captain casually finished his cake. It occurred to him that he liked the hole the spoke had made in it. He went to the kitchen and asked the cook if, henceforth, he might make all such cakes with a hole in them.
That is one of the stories doing the rounds, if you will, about the man who apparently created the ring doughnut in 1847. Alas, there are quite a lot of holes in the tale, and the catalyst for this much-loved invention was not quite as dramatic as the storm-tossed olykoek.
Hanson Gregory did indeed become a ship’s captain as a young man, but a marginally more credible version of the story, as told by himself, pitches him as a sixteen-year-old crew member on board a lime-trading ship at the time he is said to have invented the ring doughnut. As the octogenarian Captain Gregory explained to readers of the Washington Post in the spring of 1916:
‘It was way back – oh, I don’t know just what year – let me see – born in ’31, shipped when I was 13 – well, I guess it was about ’47, when I was 16, that I was aboard ship and discovered the hole which was later to revolutionise the doughnut industry.
I first shipped aboard the Isaac Achorn, three-masted schooner, Capt. Rhodes, in the lime trade. Later I joined other crews and other captains, and it was on one of these cruises that I was mawing doughnuts.
Now in them days we used to cut the doughnuts into diamond shapes, and also into long strips, bent in half, and then twisted. I don’t think we called them doughnuts then – they was just ‘fried cakes’ and ‘twisters.’
Well, sir, they used to fry all right around the edges, but when you had the edges done the insides was all raw dough. And the twisters used to sop up all the grease just where they bent, and they were tough on the digestion.
Well, I says to myself, ‘Why wouldn’t a space inside solve the difficulty?’ I thought at first I’d take one of the strips and roll it around, then I got an inspiration, a great inspiration.
I took the cover off the ship’s tin pepper box, and – I cut into the middle of that doughnut the first hole ever seen by mortal eyes!
[Interviewer:] Were you pleased?
Was Columbus pleased? Well, sir, them doughnuts was the finest I ever tasted. No more indigestion – no more greasy sinkers – but just well-done, fried-through doughnuts.[i]
Hanson Crockett Gregory was born near Clam Cove in the pretty town of Rockport, Maine, in 1831. His ancestors were Scots who moved to Maine in the late seventeenth century. One story says his great-great-grandfather was abducted from Scotland as an eight-year-old. The house he grew up in is now the parsonage of Rockport’s Nativity Lutheran Church.
When the Isaac Achorn returned to dry land after his doughnut eureka , young Gregory skipped home to Rockport and showed his mother the new trick. She got cooking and then made her way to the nearby seaport of Thomaston with a bunch of them. Thomaston (now Rockland) had plenty of people to try out Mrs Gregory’s doughnuts, being one of the busiest ship-building hubs in the US by 1847, complete with half a dozen shipyards, two gristmills, two sawmills, two planing mills and three sail lofts, as well as miscellaneous brickyards, cask manufacturers, lime manufacturers and a marble works.
Gregory maintained that “everybody was delighted and they never made doughnuts any other way except the way I showed my mother. Well, I never took out a patent on it; I don’t suppose any one can patent anything he discovers; I don’t suppose Peary could patent the north pole or Columbus patent America. But I thought I’d get out a doughnut cutter – but somebody got in ahead of me.”
Captain Gregory lived out his last years at Sailors’ Snug Harbor in Quincy, Massachusetts, where he was buried beneath a prominent headstone in 1921.
Twenty years later the National Dunking Association hosted the ‘Great Donut Debate’ at the Astor Hotel in New York, in which the fundamental question was asked: ‘Who put the hole in the donut?’ Despite a strong challenge from a speaker arguing that it originated from a Nauset Indian firing an arrow through a pilgrim cake, the judges found in favour of Hanson Gregory. In 1947, one hundred years after the momentous event, a commemorative plaque was unveiled at his birthplace in Rockport.
In his recollections in the Washington Post, Gregory concluded: “Of course, lots of people joke about the hole in the doughnut. I’ve got a joke myself: Whenever anybody says to me: ‘Where’s the hole in the doughnut?’ I always answer: ‘It’s been cut out!’
Extracted from the book ‘1847 – A Chronicle of Genius, Generosity and Savagery,’ by Turtle Bunbury.
[i] Washington Post, 26 March 1916.