Dec 20, 2015

Third wave donuts: is food elitism jargon going too far?

Slept all the way to 5:30 this morning.

By climactic quirk, it's been colder in Atlanta, Georgia than Stuttgart, Germany this week, so we've been bundling up when we go out. Saturday morning, we joined the throngs and went to a third wave donut shop. Saori told her sister that not only do I like donuts more than the average bear, but that since I was once asked to comment on the donut situation in Phoenix by a reporter, I am a bone fide international donut expert. So of course, we had to go.

I've seen a resurgence of interest in donuts in the last few years, another example of American rising interest in local, authentic, and crafted food and drink. Donuts quietly echo craft beer and coffee. Coffee's revival of interest, like Feminism, was broken into three distinct and sometimes opposing waves. First wave coffee just denotes the typical "endless refill" coffee in its quality and pattern of consumption: something hot and caffeinated. Second wave can be simply described as Starbucks, and always comes with the option of soy milk, pumpkin spice, and extra chocolate shots. Third wave is like Islamic Fundamentalism: heavily bearded men fighting over which is the purest way to brew Ethiopian Yirgacheffe, Chemex or V60, and anyone asking for cream or sugar shall be stoned.

Fortunately, donuts are much simpler than coffee, so the waves are gentler and much friendlier. After all, coffee may have as many tasting nuances as wine, but donuts are really just fried dough with lots of sugar. I'm not even spelling them "doughnuts." As I count it, there are also three waves, comparable to coffee.

First wave was the local donut shop- Bud's Donuts or Sunshine Do-nuts, either in a neglected strip mall or sitting in a tiny, dingy building surrounded by parking. Big windows, minimal 60s or 70's decor, plain white waxed paper bags, lino or tile floors, first wave coffee, endless beat-up metal trays, and a 5:00 AM opening time.

Second wave was corporate: brand, convenience, and standardization. Grocery store donuts, DunkinDonuts, and Krispy Kreme. The latter two clearly trying to do for donuts what Starbucks did to coffee: package an experience and try to make it something to show off. And even further: We are not only going to mass-produce donuts, we're going to highlight the industrial conveyer belt assembly. Tie-ins to Hollywood movies? Naturally.

Third wave is more like craft beer- innovation, emphasis on local and artesianal production, unusual ingredients or combinations, and really expensive. Forget the 5 AM opening, these are not donuts for the factory floor or job site. The coffee on tap comes with tasting notes and you can buy branded merchandise to tell the world, "I have sophisticated tastes in doughnuts."

Revolution Donuts in Atlanta normally has a line out the door. Tellingly, it's next door to craft beer specialty store in a small midcentury renovated strip mall. Another thing about third wave donut shops: the names seen to be deliberately jarring to suggest a radical break with something. Revolution Donuts, Zombie Donuts, Fractured Prune.

Enough powdered sugar, get to the filling: how were the donuts?

They were really good. But more like french macaroons. One or two and you are done. Really rich, really intense. Also, $2-$3 per donut. Most people ordered just one. I ordered a maple bourbon cro-nut, a orange and pistachio cake donut, an apple fritter, toasted almonds, and a creme brulee filled donut, topped with hardened caramelized sugar (and shared all of them with the table). Actually, I think they took it a bit too far since it's kind of awkward trying to bite through a hard glazing on top of the donut. My favorite were two classics, a yeast donut with strawberry frosting and sprinkles, and the apple fritter.

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