Although doughnuts are shaped like life preservers, I had never considered them to be life-saving in any way. Then I read an article about them in the Portland Press Herald, and saw how heavily they featured in the book Olive Kitteridge, and it made me think about them a little differently.
The article “Mainers Hooked on Hole Food” talks about the popularity of doughnuts in the Northeast. We consume more doughnuts than almost any other area of the country, about 49% more, in fact. I was therefore amused a few days later when I started reading Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout, which takes place in Maine and mentions doughnuts in almost every one of the stories.
Why is this? Even I, something of a doughnut snob (fresh-made only, thank you, or from one of the more gourmet doughnut stores - no Dunkin’ Donuts for me), admit that they’re a very tasty treat, but is that the only reason they’re so popular?
According to Tom Piscopo, owner of The Cookie Jar, doughnuts are “an emotional rescue”. Others interviewed for the Press Herald article indicate that doughnuts are “fun”, “a cheap thrill”, and a “comfort food”. And with the economy still being down, something inexpensive, tasty, and comforting may certainly be a “rescue” for someone. What I don’t know is if people recognize that they’re might be eating the doughnut for emotional reasons, and not because they’re hungry? And if so, do they even care?
They may not. In an interview with Strout about Olive Kitteridge, when asked about the prevalence of doughnuts in the stories, the author replied, “Doughnuts are a source of comfort to [Olive], as they are to many people. She’s not entirely careless about her physical well-being, but the doughnuts represent a certain heedlessness in her desire to appease her appetites.” (p. 297)
That might ring true for many people, not just Olive. But in one story, “Starving,” doughnuts were more than a comfort. They became a literal attempt to save a life.
The story features a girl who is anorexic and in a pretty bad way. “The girl’s head seemed much too large for her body; veins were visible on the sides of her forehead, and her bare arms as skinny as the slats of the chair back she took hold of.” (p. 92)
A couple of the townspeople are trying to help her, and one of them happens to have doughnuts. “He picked up [a] doughnut. He said, ‘To my memory, I have never begged for anything.’ Just slightly the girl smiled at him. ‘And I am begging you to eat.’
“The girl sat up slowly. ‘Only because you’ve been nice,’ she said. She ate the doughnut so ravenously Daisy had to tell her to slow down.” (p. 94)
Then Olive stops by and also eats a doughnut. She tells the girl, “‘I’m starving, too. Why do you think I eat every doughnut in sight?’” (p. 95)
This exchange hit me harder than almost anything else in the book, not only because it’s about food, but because it strikes so deeply to the heart of our conflicted relationship with food. On the one hand, a girl who is willing to die rather than eat, and on the other, a woman who is willing to eat in an attempt to save herself from a different type of death.
Can doughnuts, or any food, save you? I can’t truly say. I think they can help you cope, but my concern is when that becomes the only way to cope, or to get through life. It seems to take the joy out of it.
Happily most of us aren’t in straits quite so dire, and we can enjoy a doughnut now and again simply for the fun of it. And personally, I enjoy it even more knowing that I’m not expecting it to save me - I can simply savor the doughnut for itself, in all its fried, baked, glazed, frosted, filled, and/or sprinkled deliciousness.