By Marina Wolf
FOR YEARS I've hated cake doughnuts (some people call them old-fashioneds) without really knowing why. My dislike has the unwavering focus of a childhood distaste, all out of proportion with the obvious facts of their sharp aftertaste and dry, stiff crumb. It was only recently that my family once ate cake doughnuts every Saturday for two years. That much exposure can make you sick of anything.
The doughnuts were one of my dad's get-rich-quick schemes that he picked up to supplement his recession-level income. His other home-business ventures--Amway and Watkins were two of his favorites--depended heavily on charisma and gullible buyers, none of which he had in steady supply.
Doughnuts, on the other hand, required only a few gallons of hot oil and the stubbornness of a much-whipped mule. It was right up my dad's alley. And considering that he was an electrical engineer, his idea was a pretty good one: Fry 'em up fresh and ferry them around to folks looking for a bit of a treat on Saturday mornings.
Of course, anyone in food service will tell you it's a hell of a lot of work, and I don't think Dad figured on how much. Every Friday night he lugged the equipment and heavy sacks of mix out from the laundry room, and every Saturday at 3 or 4 a.m. he fired up the fryer. We got used to the sounds of the enormous mixer, its clanging blades muted by a churning pale mess of dough, but the smell of the frying was unavoidable, oily and verging too close to burnt. By 8 a.m. the fumes had settled on every curtain in the house, there to linger until the following week.
At the beginning, Dad burned himself fairly often as he dropped the doughnuts in and fished them out, four or six at a time. After they cooled, he painted a thick coat of chocolate or vanilla frosting over the top, which settled in drops all over the table, no matter how carefully he laid down the paper towels.
There was no room in the kitchen to make a real breakfast, so we kids fed ourselves on the more obvious mistakes--the gnarled ones or the ones that stuck together. Then we washed our greasy hands and struggled to put together the pink cardboard boxes, which my father filled according to last week's orders: one dozen plain, six each of plain and chocolate. He scrawled the name on each box, stacked them carefully in the bus, and yelled at us to hurry up. We could help deliver to houses of people we knew well, but that didn't mean we could be late.
At first it was exciting to ring the doorbells, carefully present the plain pink boxes, and run back to the car clutching a few dollars. But in time I began to feel a certain resentment toward my dad's customers, the ones I knew from church, especially. Their fathers had real jobs, one job each. They could get doughnuts from Dunkin' Donuts if they wanted to, and fancy ones, too, maple bars and apple fritters and jelly donuts.
Why were they buying ours, our weird little crumbly cake donuts?
I can't explain, then or now, the source of my distrust, except in the simplest of metaphors--cake doughnuts, apple fritters. What's to explain? But even then I sensed the slight disdain in the smiles of my Sunday school classmates as they handed over the money, $1.50 per box.
Their fathers were sleeping in bed.
My father was sleeping in the car, his head lolling back, his mouth slightly open, and a trace of white dusting his brow.
From the March 15-21, 2001 issue of the Northern California Bohemian.