“Did a cow invent the doughnut?”

One afternoon, while we were watching old episodes of Murdoch Mysteries, The Ten-Year-Old had her mind blown by a stray comment from Constable George Crabtree. “Did you know that a cow invented the doughnut?” Crabtree asks Detective Murdoch during a pause in the investigation.

The Ten-Year-Old, who retains control of the remote during Murdoch Mysteries just in case the episodes become too scary, immediately hit pause. “Mommyo, is that true?”

Curiosity trumps TV, even in the summer, especially if that TV is streamed and can be stopped at will. The Ten-Year-Old absolutely refused to hit play until she knew exactly how a cow was involved in creating the doughnut. Her working theory was that the cow invented the hole in the middle, either by stepping into a pile of dough or spearing it with its horns. If I ever wanted to know whether Cecil Fox deserved the hanging he so cleverly survived, I was going to have to get to the bottom of this cow issue.

First things first: Does anyone really think a cow invented the doughnut?

Fortunately for the rest of us, cow feet (and horns) are not now and (hopefully) never were used to stamp doughnut holes. But the story that a cow invented the doughnut is apparently a real tale, and not just something the writers of the Murdoch Mysteries made up.

According to the Geva Journal, the story goes that at some point in early American colonial history, a cow knocked over a pail of burning oil onto pastry mix, accidentally creating fried cake. The fried cake was so good, the colonials kept the recipe for themselves and refused to share it with the folks back home.

The legend sounds a lot like the one about how Mrs. O’Leary’s cow started the Great Chicago Fire, and is probably just as false.

Doughnuts have been around nearly as long as there have been people available to fry them

According to Smithsonian Magazine, humans have eaten some form of the doughnut since prehistoric times. Doughnuts were pretty popular back then too, based on the number of fossilized doughnut bits that pop up in prehistoric Native American trash heaps.

“Middens, Mommyo. Not trash heaps.”

Who actually invented the doughnut is a bit of a mystery. Probably wasn’t a cow, though.

Lots of cultures appear to have had some version of the doughnut. Ancient Romans and Greeks ate fried dough coated in honey. Medieval Arab cooks drenched their fried dough in syrup. In Medieval Europe, German diners feasted on fritters stuffed with mushrooms and meat, while their Polish neighbors preferred paczki filled with jelly.

In a final blow to the Tale of the Colonial Cow Chef, the Dutch are actually credited with bringing the modern doughnut to New Amsterdam (present-day Manhattan) in the form of olykoeks (oily cakes). Olykoeks were basically deep fried balls of dough. Because the center of the dough didn’t always cook properly, the Dutch often replaced it with raisins or dried citrus soaked in brandy or simply cut the center out entirely.

In American literature, the olykoek, or more accurately, its descendant the doughty doughnut, has been immortalized in Washington Irving’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, which takes place in the 1790 Dutch settlement, Tarry Town, New York. Those who wish to taste Washington Irving’s famed doughty doughnuts for themselves can find a recipe for them at the blog In Literature.

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About Shala Howell

I spent two decades helping companies like Bell Labs, Juniper Networks, and a genetic testing company that was later acquired by CVS translate some of the world’s most complicated concepts into actionable, understandable English. Now I'm working on a much harder problem -- fostering children’s curiosity and engagement in the scientific, artistic, and linguistic world that surrounds them. The first book in my Caterpickles Parenting Series, What’s That, Mom?, focuses on how to use public art to nurture children’s curiosity in the world around them. My next book, Did Dinosaurs Have Belly Buttons?, is currently planned for release in 2018. In the meantime, you can find me blogging about life with a very curious Ten-Year-Old at Caterpickles.com, chatting about books and the writing life at BostonWriters.blog, and tweeting about books, writing, science, & things that make me smile at @shalahowell.
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3 Responses to “Did a cow invent the doughnut?”

  1. Emilie says:

    Thanks for clearing this up. I honestly am currently watching that episode of Murdoch Mysteries and I had to pause it to find out of George’s theory was true. I googled it and found your article. Thanks, too, for raising a curious kid and for taking the time to help her answer the question 👍

    Like

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