Yesterday, Danger Guerrero posted a love letter to pizza. In the piece, he unpacked how the miracle of pizza can be understood in three different ways: The fact that it’s almost always good, its ability to be truly great, and the concentrated effort it takes to make it bad.
That last bit is particularly interesting: Understanding something’s “goodness” through the rarity by which it is “bad.” I can’t think of many foods that pass that test… a burrito, maybe. But donuts — which we’re focused on today because they get two national food holidays, because yes, they are very special — fail this test miserably. Donuts can be awful. A stale donut is bad. An overly-sweet donut is bad. A donut that is too dense is bad. Most manage to be “usually good,” but the problem with a middling donut is that there’s too much guilt attached that make the cost-benefit pencil out.
In fact, of all the foods we love, a donut is the toughest to lie to ourselves about. We know it’s not healthy and there’s no argument to the contrary. Pizza has cheese (dairy!), tomato sauce (fruit!), and bread (grains!). Throw some basil on top and you’re practically eating a salad. Even bacon has protein. But to truly enjoy a donut, you have to ignore the whole health conversation completely. Because while donuts are often dubbed a “guilty pleasure,” they’re best enjoyed guilt-free, and enjoying a donut without guilt is only do-able when they’re great.
Which is easy these days, thanks to hipsters.
Yes, hipsters — the food obsessed, completely undefinable, overly criticized, fixed-gear-bike-riding hordes — have changed the donut game. When the all-artisan-everything revolution started, donuts were one of the first treats to get attention from talented culinary minds and people with forearm tattoos. Voodoo Donut in Portland (Oregon) was already combining savory and sweet by putting bacon on maple bars back in 2003. By the late 2000s, cheffed-up donut shops (owned by young craft-minded urbanites) could be found in every major city. They never quite had a cultural zeitgeist moment, like cupcakes, but that may be why donuts are still thriving while the whole cupcake thing has mellowed out.
These days, flavors have moved beyond kitschy (Voodoo first got famous for its NyQuil glaze) and are legitimately smart (hence the thick rimmed spectacles that the manager at your favorite donut bar wears). Hipster legend Blue Star Donuts (Portland, Tokyo, LA) has flavors like “chocolate salted almond” and “Kahlua cake with mascarpone glaze” on the menu. Do-Rite (Chicago) features “pistachio Meyer lemon” and “candied maple bacon.” Sidecar Donuts (Costa Mesa, Santa Monica) offers “honey cake with clove, nutmeg, and anise” and “Southern gentleman pecan pie with trace bourbon.”
These flavors have all the marking of hipsterism, and it would be easy to say, “Give me a f*cking maple bar and get off of my lawn.” But here’s the thing: The artisan donuts are better. Way better. They have their sweetness in check and layered flavors that both work well together and fit the donut’s format. They are balanced, and that’s a good thing.
The donut isn’t like pizza. It can be bad. It is regularly mediocre (then ruined completely by guilt). But damn, it is truly great so, so often these days. Which is why you should find one right now and, while you’re on your mission, thank a hipster for spurring on the donut’s golden age.
Here, for those intensely interested, is some donut porn. Jesus, I’m hungry.