Ah, donuts. They tempt us as we walk past the Dunkin’ Donuts on our way home and seem to call our name from their box in the break room at work. The healthy, rational side of your brain doesn’t want them, but the “treat yo self” part certainly does. And now, here we are on yet another National Donut Day—the 80th annual National Donut Day, to be exact. A day when it’s even harder to say no to those fried rings of happiness thanks to the marketing tactics of donut stores giving them away for free, right and left.
But, wait! What if we told you that National Donut Day isn’t just a marketing ploy put in place by large chain donut stores—and that you could eat your donut today with no trace of guilt? That, in fact, eating the donut in the break room today is actually a celebration of an incredible moment in history? Hear us out, because the story of National Donut Day is actually much more inspiring than a free donut from Krispy Kream.
Over 100 years ago, just after the U.S sent troops to France, volunteers were sent from the Salvation Army to evaluate the best ways to support our troops overseas. In an effort to bring the comforts of home to U.S training centers in France, the most efficient idea they came up with was to assemble huts nearby to serve the men baked goods. However, running a bakery near a war zone was not exactly an easy task.
Enter: the donut.
Two Salvation Army ensigns named Helen Purviance and Margaret Sheldon found that donuts could easily and quickly be prepared and served at the scale needed. Thus, they became fondly known as the “Doughnut Lassies.” Fun fact: did you know that donuts have two spellings—”donut” being the relatively newer spelling and “doughnut” one from yesteryear.
But they were not just serving them sweet treats as a much-needed alternative to the less-than-appetizing rations, they were there to provide spiritual and emotional support—which, at times, was just what the exhausted and homesick soldiers needed most.
“I was literally on my knees when those first donuts were fried, seven at a time, in a small frypan,” Purviance later recalled. To speed up the slow process, due to their very limited resources, they sometimes even fried the tasty treats in soldiers helmets.
Together, Sheldon and Purviance recall making upwards of 700 donuts every day. They served the donuts and coffee to the soldiers in training and to those in the trenches. But they were not just serving them sweet treats as a much-needed alternative to the less-than-appetizing rations, they were there to provide spiritual and emotional support—which, at times, was just what the exhausted and homesick soldiers needed most. Along with the donuts and words of encouragement, the Doughnut Lassies provided writing supplies, stamps, clothes-mending services and home-cooked meals.
News traveled fast as photos of homesick troops eating donuts made their way back home, widely responsible for making donuts so popular in the U.S.
However, it wasn’t until the Great Depression that the Salvation Army decided to commemorate the donut effort during the war in the form of a fundraiser, making National Donut Day official. Donut-themed restaurants caught on and began celebrating the day as well.
So, today, as you sit at your desk savoring every moment of your now guilt-free, sweet treat, think of our soldiers in France—those many, many years ago—savoring every moment of their own donuts and thinking of home. And think of Helen Purviance, Margaret Sheldon and the rest of the Doughnut Lassies, who set a goal to bring joy and comfort to homesick servicemen in desperate need of both. Thanks to the trusty donut, they succeeded.
And that is something truly worth celebrating.
Want to know how the Doughnut Lassies did it? Make your own Salvation Army donuts using the recipe below:
The Salvation Army Donut Lassie Recipe
Yield: 4 doz. donuts
- 2 large eggs
- 5 cups flour
- 2 cups sugar
- 5 teaspoons baking powder
- 1/4 tablespoon salt
- 1 3/4 cup milk
- 1 tub lard
- Combine all ingredients (except for lard) to make dough.
- Thoroughly knead dough, roll smooth and cut into rings that are less than 1/4 inch thick. (When finding items to cut out doughnut circles, be creative! Salvation Army Doughnut Girls used whatever they could find, from baking powder cans to coffee percolator tubes.)
- Drop the rings into the lard, making sure the fat is hot enough to brown the donuts gradually. Turn the donuts slowly several times.
- When browned, remove donuts and allow excess fat to drip off.
- Dust with powdered sugar. Let cool and enjoy.