Doughnut eats N.Y. Taste: The Big Apple's tastemakers have fallen for Winston-Salem's 60-year-old cure for good health: the Krispy Kreme doughnut.

SUN JOURNAL

March 28, 1997|By DAN FESPERMAN | DAN FESPERMAN,SUN STAFF

RALEIGH, N.C. - Making it big in New York has always been a risky proposition for North Carolinians. Novelist Thomas Wolfe wrote an entire book about the consequences, concluding, "You Can't Go Home Again" once the folks back home start wagging their tongues.

So everyone must now ask: Will Krispy Kreme doughnuts still taste the same now that George Steinbrenner likes them? The chief Yankee - and everybody in Manhattan, it seems - has reportedly become a fan of the deep-fried, sugar-glazed staple of Southern cuisine known as the Krispy Kreme doughnut.

Born 60 years ago in Winston-Salem, Krispy Kremes became a hit in New York almost from the moment the city's first shop opened last year. In recent weeks, they've even been declared chic, drawing raves from such esteemed arbiters of taste as Elle, GQ, In Style, the New York Times and, that New Yorkiest of institutions, "The Talk of the Town" column in the New Yorker.

Nora Ephron informed New Yorker readers that the shop on West 23rd Street "has become a shrine, complete with pilgrims, fanatics, converts and proselytizers - the sort of religious experience New Yorkers like me are far more receptive to than the ones that actually involve God."

To people around here, it is an affirmation of long-standing culinary values, yet also mildly unsettling - sort of like hearing that the likable boy who used to mow your lawn has moved to New York and been declared a landscaping genius.

"Is that right?" asks a surprised Bob Bradford, 47, when told that the doughnut he was eating in Raleigh had become a Big Apple sensation. He digests the news for a moment along with his second doughnut, wiping crumbled glaze from his mustache, although missing a flake up on his right cheek.

"It doesn't surprise me," he decides. "I've seen so many places come down here to open up, like New York deli, New York bagels, New York this and that." And from his own sampling, he says, "I figure they must not have too much to choose from."

Bradford might be described as one of the chain's archetypal lifetime consumers. He grew up down the street from the shop on the edge of downtown Raleigh, with its hulking red-and-green neon sign now protected as an architectural landmark, and he started eating Krispy Kremes around first grade.

From there his consumption patterns followed the customary bell curve, steadily building toward the teen-age binges of six-to-eight-or-more at a time, then gradually moderating to the more mature dosages of middle age. As the New Yorker responsibly concluded, "The Krispy Kreme Original Glazed doughnut is yeast-raised and light as a frosted snowflake. It is possible to eat three of them in one sitting without suffering any ill effects."

Their biggest attraction may be that you can buy them while they're hot, a distinction the company began emphasizing about eight years ago by mounting orange neon signs in the window of every shop to announce "Hot doughnuts now" whenever the machinery is rolling.

And, oh, what machinery - a room-sized industrial dreamscape of rollers, conveyor belts, grease vats and chain-drive pulleys, a seeming collaboration of Rube Goldberg and the Pillsbury Doughboy.

And whether you're in Raleigh or Manhattan, it's all available for viewing behind a plate-glass window. The process begins with a gleaming mixing machine that kneads the dough, then squeezes out six rings at a time onto belts of green plastic. The belts roll up and down through a warmed, glassed-in chamber while the doughnuts rise like slowly inflating tires.

The rows then march relentlessly into vats of hot grease - 3,240 doughnuts per hour on the company's biggest machines - floating onward as they fry on one side before another gizmo flips them to fry their backsides.

A conveyor belt lifts the doughnuts out of the grease for a slow ride through a white curtain of falling glaze. Then they're carried uphill to cooling racks, where the gloved hands of the counter helpers gently snatch them into boxes for waiting customers, taking care not to cram them together lest the glaze crack or smear.

Dennis Rogers, a longtime arbiter of eastern North Carolina tastes as a columnist for the Raleigh News &Observer, has witnessed many a doughnut aborning at the local franchise on Person Street.

He likes his Krispy Kremes as well as the next fellow, singing their praises in a recent column in which he dealt with the "compression theory" - the principle by which you squeeze together several hot, gooey ones to get them all in your mouth at once.

But he never thought something as simple and fattening as a doughnut would become trendy.

"That's the odd part," Rogers says. "It just shows how desperate New Yorkers are to be ahead of the curve. It's the same damn doughnut we've been eating for 60 years, and if there's anything that's nutritionally incorrect, it's a Krispy Kreme doughnut. You expect New Yorkers to be a little bit more on the cutting edge, but this is something that must be 100 grams of fat per doughnut."

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