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Canadian identity is… donut shaped?

By Shruti Shekar      

How a humble sweet treat seized post-war consumer culture, becoming a social unifier for all Canadians.

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In a country that has a lot of difficulty narrowing down a national food, the donut is one of a few that has shaped Canadian identity since its arrival in the Great White North more than 80 years ago.

Commercial donuts as we now know them started in the United States when Adolf Levitt, owner of Doughnut Corporation of America, opened his chain of donut shops in 1916 and invented an automatic donut-making machine “to keep up with the demand” of World War I soldiers returning home wanting the sweet treat, University of Toronto Professor Steve Penfold writes in his book The Donut: A Canadian History.

Levitt ended up sending the machine to one shop in Canada in the 1920s, and in 1935 sent one of his employees to establish a Canadian division of DCA called Canadian Doughnut Company.

About two years later a full-fledged facility opened up in Trenton, Ont., and later in Montreal, Penfold says.

The first Country Style location, 1963. Photograph courtesy of Country Style’s Facebook page

Levitt even sold his machines to mom-and-pop shops so they could make more standard and perfect-looking donuts.

The company had essentially perfected bulk production and its process; something many manufacturers at the time were trying to accomplish.

“CDC and its American parent shared one of the quintessential capitalist dream of the 20th century: to transform production in small batches into specialized, mechanized, and standardized processes,” says Penfold.

The first Canadian-owned commercial chain of donut shops opened in Toronto, Ont. by Country Style Donuts (now known as Country Style) in 1963 with more than 50 varieties of donut available, says Vito Curali, senior marketing manager at MYT Group hired by Country Style, in an email to P&I.

According to Penfold, Country Style Donuts opened a large donut shop in 1966 in Oakville, Ont., located west of Toronto, and advertised the location to customers as a place to buy a wide variety of donut.

“The advertisement was obviously placed for a specific, and local, commercial purpose—to attract consumers to a new business in the area—but it did more than enumerate the many exciting features of one particular donut shop,” Penfold writes.

“In a rudimentary way, it articulated many of the core ingredients of postwar consumer culture, bringing together automobile convenience, consistent quality across space, and a tremendous variety of tastes.”

Who knew that this tasty mass consumer product would evolve into something identifiably Canadian?

From 1930 until a few years after Country Style Donuts was established, the donut was predominantly pushed to consumers as a trendy food and was heavily promoted as something to be eaten during holidays “tying the product to the modern festival calendar,” says Penfold.

“Ads featured Santa Claus eating donuts, and lengthy pamphlets gave detailed instructions on how to run Halloween, birthday, and Christmas parties that included donuts as fun and food.”

This promotion still exists today. June 2 was coined ‘National Donut Day,’ and to encourage people to celebrate, Twitter Canada polled which donut Canadians think is the best. The result was a 27 per cent vote tie between the old fashioned and Boston cream.

Continuous identity shaper

Penfold adds that donut culture really came into fruition in Canada when former hockey player Tim Horton partnered with local donut salesman Jim Charade. Charade “began to think that celebrity might be an effective marketing tool,” and opened up Tim Horton Donuts in 1963.

Donuts were popular in the early 20th century partly because of their simple ingredients. Photograph courtesy of the Bread Monk Blog http://breadmonk.com/my-bread-blog/old-fashioned-cake-doughnuts

Irina D. Mihalache, culinary historian and professor at University of Toronto, also indicates that the donut as a national Canadian identifier didn’t come until later. She adds that even if the donut were dubbed a national dish, such an identity factor “means different things to different people.”

“In Canada, the donut is very much associated with specific brands specifically Tim Hortons,” Mihalache says. “ The iconicity of the donut as a national dish in Canada has come much much later in the history of the donut itself.”

She says the arrival of the donut is very different in Canada unlike in the U.S. where it originated as a story of Dutch immigrants coming to New England (the northeastern region of the U.S.) and developing the food due to the availability of ingredients like pig fat, sugar, salt and flour.

For Mihalache, the narrative of the donut in Canada is more about a continuous identity shaper.

“Rather than [the donut] being a history of the making of the nation in the past, the donut in Canada is a history of continuously making Canada, by welcoming new people into the nation,” she said. “If you think about Tim Hortons commercials they are very much the commercials about new comers to Canada learning ‘how to be Canadian.”’

This makes sense as a surge of immigration in Canada took place in the early 1960s, with close to 300,000 immigrants coming into the country, according to Statistics Canada. This was around the same time Country Style and Tim Hortons were established.

Mihalache explains some of the earlier Tim Hortons commercials included a Chinese immigrant learning the Canadian experience and the “ritual of becoming Canadian by learning how to eat the donut and learning the language of the double double.”

Tim Hortons making reference to Canada’s 150th birthday in its marketing. Photograph courtesy of Tim Hortons’ Facebook page

“Tim Hortons is the reason why I would say we think about the donut as quintessentially Canadian,” Mihalache said. “It’s very much attached to that consumer culture that was developed around Tim Hortons as kind of a community space. A space where everybody is welcomed [and] it’s part of your everyday routine.”

Soon after Tim Hortons took over, Mihalache adds that the donut itself evolved to adapt to consumer culture, especially with the arrival of the ‘foodie’ culture post-1980.

“The donut has been one of those foods that has been kind of [copped] by the foodie culture to be gourmet-ified,” Mihalache says. “It’s a trend that’s been promoted and constructed by the restaurant culture, by people who want to see this happen. If you think about the perspective from Tim Hortons…it continues to construct itself as a Canadian brand and even with Canada 150 they have their Canadian donut.”

Other brands like SuzyQ Doughnuts, a gourmet-style donut shop located in Ottawa, creates special and different donuts that are what many in 2017 like to call ‘Instagram-worthy.’

And some donut shops create and name donuts with a nod to pop-culture.

DoughNats, a Montreal-based bakery, has named one of its donuts ‘Tru-doh,” after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

Larger commercial chains like Country Style have also adapted to cater to the 2017 generation of donut eaters, Curali adds.

“Donuts have been presented in a variety of ways to address the ever-changing needs of Canadians,” Curali says. “Recently Country Style …placed the donut on-top of a beverage to provide consumers with an Instagram-worthy masterpiece.”

Curali adds that over the years, donut shops have evolved to serving more than just donuts.

Gourmet donuts from SuzyQ in Ottawa. Photograph courtesy of SuzyQ’s Facebook page

“Donut locations no longer just focus on donuts. At the beginning the operation was mainly focused on providing donuts [and] coffee was not the main item consumed,” he says, adding that now donut shops are found on almost every corner, becoming a “symbol of Canadian culture” that has helped us “celebrate our Canadian heritage.”

Mihalache notes that there are also people who participate in foodie-culture who will likely go to stores that offer the opportunity to partake in a unique experience.

“This particular group of gourmet donut shops has a different reach and different discourse,” she says. “People who go to SuzyQ don’t necessarily go to Tim Hortons.”

Mihalache adds that despite this, for Canada, a country that has had a lot of difficulty narrowing down a national food, the donut will remain a staple and Canadians have always been very committed to maintaining it.

“Canada is one of those countries that has struggled and continues to struggle to identify a national cuisine,” Mihalache says. “It’s very different from France or Germany where French food, I can say exactly what it is. With Canada when you have a country that doesn’t have a very clear narrative, it is going to hold onto a few dishes like the butter tart, the donut, poutine…there’s a couple of dishes that are going to be preserved as Canadian because we don’t have a lot of Canadian foods that are globally recognized as ‘Canadian.’”

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