We toast Thoreau with campfire doughnuts

Squire Cleveland Page popped in this morning with a box of doughnuts and a jug of sweet cider, and we renewed a too-long interruption of contemplating profanum volgus (the profane mob) and related absurdities as we had oftimes done in the bygones.

Squire Page is a semiretired lawyer but otherwise upright, and I always plead nolo contendere to cider and doughnuts. His treat came from the little red schoolhouse, which is now a roadside stand on Route 1. The stand sells many things to folks from away, such as 50-cent cucumbers - for which, in my farming days, I got 2 cents. Squire Page and I meditate on things like that.

Take doughnuts.

When my sister inveigled her husband into attending a performance of "Macbeth" at the Monmouth seasonal playhouse, he was indifferent and reluctant until Duncan came on stage. Then he roused and said loudly, "Oh, I know him; he runs a doughnut shop in Lewiston!" Because he often says things like that I'm fond of my brother-in-law.

The doughnut of commerce and the true doughnut of Truth and Light differ, and I plan to give you the recipe for the good one.

A spurious tale says the hole in the doughnut was invented by a Downeast sea cook who wanted to stick them on the spokes of his vessel's steering wheel so he could lunch as he sailed to the golden isles around the world. Some say it was a ship captain, but either way the story is absurd. No sea cook was ever permitted to approach a vessel's steering wheel; it was bad enough to have him in the galley. And no ship's captain ever deigned to cook anything.

Instead, the hole in the doughnut was figured out by some highlander who well knew what he was about.

For some time, doughnut dough had been cut into rectangles and the edges slit so the hot fat could get to the center and cook it. The round doughnut with a hole solved that, and as soon as a tin doughnut cutter was fashioned, we were in business.

I was told as a boy that the first round doughnut was made by a lumber-camp cook who cut it with a Fourth of July horn. He cut the circle with the bell end and gouged out the hole with the blow end.

The finest doughnut I ever stuck a tooth into was fried on an open fire at Ziggler's Campground at Eagle Lake on the Allagash River. With Flint and Red Johnson we were on a two-week outing down the north Maine wilderness and had just come to the farthest point Henry David Thoreau had penetrated (although there is some question about that). According to his book, Thoreau didn't know where he was a good part of the time, and the rest of the time he was lost.

That's what Flint said, and I believe him - he was the best woodsman in Maine. He was also an expert poacher and my trail buddy. He packed our wanigan for the trip and had included ingredients for doughnuts. At Eagle Lake we'd hold ceremonial exercises to honor the sage of Walden Pond, who never made it to the Allagash but thought he had.

This is true; the sage came down Allagash Stream to Chamberlain Lake and passed into Eagle, but Allagash Stream is not Allagash River. The river begins at the outlet of Eagle. As Flint showed us, Thoreau was on the east branch of the Penobscot River and thought he was on the Allagash. So in honor of Thoreau we made doughnuts.

Flint found a blown-down yellow birch that gave us plenty of dry wood for a hot fire, and Red mixed the dough in a plastic pail. Flint had a doughnut cutter.

You don't need to go way up into the Maine wilderness to honor Thoreau. With Red's doughnuts, you can do it back home.

Red's doughnuts

3/4 cup sugar

2 tablespoons butter

3 eggs, well-beaten

1 cup buttermilk

4 to 5 cups flour

1/2 teaspoon nutmeg

1/2 teaspoon mace

1/4 teaspoon cinnamon

1-1/4 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon baking soda

1/2 teaspoon cream of tartar

Cream together sugar and butter. Add well-beaten eggs and buttermilk. Mix. Sift 4 cups flour with other dry ingredients and add to mixture. Mix until smooth. Add more flour if dough is sticky. Roll to half-inch thickness and let stand about 20 minutes. Cut with 2-1/2-inch doughnut cutter. Fry in deep fat at 375 degrees F. until brown. Turn once to brown both sides. Drain on absorbent paper. Makes four dozen small doughnuts.

Think what Thoreau missed at Eagle Lake, and enjoy!

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