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It's National Doughnut Day: Why eating doughnuts is a patriotic duty

Doughnuts have a surprisingly long history as an American snack, dating back to the war effort of World War I. Today, it's a chance for retailers to treat their customers.

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    A man poses for photographers with an oversized doughnut during a doughnut giveaway marking the 75th annual National Doughnut Day in New York in 2012. New York's Empire State Building is seen in the background.
    Eduardo Munoz/Reuters/File
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Batten down the hatches, doughnut shops, and prepare for crowds as Americans celebrate a unique, and surprisingly patriotic holiday – National Doughnut Day.

National Doughnut Day occurs every year on the first Friday in June, prompting the nation's best known doughnut makers to roll out the red carpet for doughnut aficionados from East to West with offers of free doughnuts.

Yet, while National Doughnut Day is a once a year chance for doughnut lovers to nosh on their favorite sweet treats for free at many doughnut chains, it also has a long legacy of charity and giving that continues to this day.

It was the Salvation Army that created National Doughnut Day in 1938, to remember the role that its volunteers (and their doughnuts!) played in World War I.

In 1917, Salvation Army volunteer officers Helen Purviance and Margaret Sheldon were in Europe to aid in the war effort. By that time, the United States had joined the allied soldiers of France and Britain in the trenches, and Salvation Army volunteers were crucial to providing much-needed medical assistance and other services to American soldiers at war.

Ms. Purviance and Ms. Sheldon were among those volunteers on October 19, 1917, when they decided that the American soldiers at the front could use a small slice of home. So, using their limited supplies, they set to work making dozens of doughnuts.

The surprise treat was such a hit that the two volunteers were soon swamped by demand for their doughnuts, and a tradition of "doughnut dollies," young women who brought doughnuts to the troops during wartime, was born.

Although Purviance and Sheldon chose to make doughnuts for the soldiers out of necessity and limited ingredients, their culinary choice turned out to be surprisingly patriotic.

Culinary historian Michael Krondl told The Christian Science Monitor by phone that doughnuts have a uniquely American heritage.

"Fried pastries have been with us for a very long time," says Mr. Krondl. "Each country in Europe had their own variant, but the doughnut came with early English settlers to the New England colonies, and from there, it became a quintessential American food."

According to Krondl, the term doughnut comes from Hertfordshire, England, which had a traditional fried pastry variously known as the Hertford-nut, or the dough-nut. When colonists began to stream across the ocean to the New World, settlers from Hertfordshire brought their cuisine with them.

Although doughnuts had become popular across the country by 1917, Krondl told the Monitor, New England was still leading the country in terms of national cuisine. "Apple pie, fudge, doughnuts," Krondl says, "they were what people thought of when they thought of American food, and they were all traditionally from New England."

Salvation Army volunteers Purviance and Sheldon had been making fudge for the troops, according to a 1976 interview in a Florida paper, but fudge requires a significant amount of sugar and other supplies. The materials for doughnuts were far easier to procure, though the officers had to go to some lengths to find fresh eggs for their recipe.

Today, Krondl says, the modern doughnut doesn't have the same uniquely American identity that it did in the early 20th century. In fact, he says, "Americans have two ideas of doughnuts – the Homer Simpson, workingman idea, and the hipster, $4 doughnut idea."

Although doughnuts today undoubtedly come in many more varieties than the World War I doughboys could have imagined, records from the Civil War era hint that even then, Americans (at least in New England) were likely familiar with more than a dozen kinds of doughnuts.

While Krondl says that the doughnut does not enjoy the same iconic status today that it did even in the mid-20th century, it is still a strong reminder of the country's past, particularly its ancestrally Puritan approach to food.

"What makes the doughnut truly indulgent and American, is that it is something you can have all the time, breakfast, lunch, and dinner," Krondl says. "We both love to indulge, and we love to beat ourselves up about it. What other country has sinfully rich desserts? That expression doesn't occur even in England."

For your slice of history, you can drop by a number of national doughnut chains today. Head over to the nearest doughnut shop for a free treat – Dunkin' Doughnuts is giving away a free doughnut with the purchase of any drink. Krispy Kreme and East Coast based Duck Doughnuts are handing out one free doughnut per customer, no drink purchase required.

Several, including Krispy Kreme and Entemann's, have also partnered with the Salvation Army to raise money for charity.

"As founders of National Doughnut Day, The Salvation Army is a natural partner," said Tony Thompson, the founder of Krispy Kreme. "We're excited to collect funds for the many initiatives they support, especially since all donations will go directly to the local communities."

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