Krispy Kremes for Smithsonian Doughnuts: The National Museum of American History is honoring a Southern staple in the American diet.


WASHINGTON - When cultural historians reflect on Southern food, they think about grits and fried chicken and chitlins and, of course, Krispy Kreme doughnuts.

From Biloxi, Miss., to Charlotte, N.C., and invading the Midwest as far north as Fort Wayne, Ind., these deep-fried sugar- and fat-filled miracles have defined breakfast for millions of Americans.

Now, the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History is honoring this culinary icon with an exhibit that illuminates its importance. In the age of the bagel, the old-fashioned donut - as American as peanut butter and jelly - is getting a nod.

The museum last week accepted a donation of doughnut artifacts including equipment, memorabilia and documents from Krispy Kreme Doughnut Corp., to be part of the museum's exhibits on American business, social and cultural history. At the heart of the Smithsonian display is a 1949 "Ring King Jr." doughnut machine, one of the ancient mechanical miracles used to spin out Krispy Kreme cake doughnuts.

The machine is important, said Smithsonian archivist John Fleckner, because it symbolizes the importance of machinery in producing good food cheaply and consistently. In a way, Krispy Kreme was father to the kind of standardization that made Big Macs and Starbucks coffee coast-to-coast sensations.

"We take for granted food products that are of standard uniform quality and inexpensive, and Krispy Kreme is a part of how we got to that point," Fleckner said as he displayed the stainless steel wonder.

Of course, another important part of the American food experience is selling the sizzle, and the Krispy Kreme folks were on hand last week to do just that.

According to Southern legend, they said, Elvis Presley had a box of Krispy Kreme jelly doughnuts within easy reach at all times.

Krispy Kreme has been padding Southern stomachs for 60 years, growing from a delivery service for Winston-Salem, N.C., grocery stores in 1937 to a regional treasure of 127 doughnut outlets in 17 Southeastern states.

"It really is important to the Southern identity and the Southern experience," said Fleckner, who admitted that as a Northeasterner, he had to visit a Krispy Kreme location in Winston-Salem to figure that out.

To highlight the doughnut's cultural significance, there was a 20 minute sing-along in the Smithsonian lobby. Among the featured tunes were such classics as "Doughnuts and Coffee" and the "Doughnut Polka." "Watch the doughnut, not the hole," belted entertainer Cindy Hutchins in a rendition of Burl Ives' "Doughnut Song."

And with that advice, Garcie McCall, who helped to invent the Ring King Jr. machine, offered bewildered tourists a quickie seminar on how the machine works around the holes.

"I never dreamed we would be in the Smithsonian," said McCall.

As Krispy Kreme's owners and employees tell it, the company's modern history has been like a roller coaster.

The chain grew steadily until 1973, but then went stale under the ownership of Beatrice Foods after the death of founder Vern Rudolph.

Enter Joe McAleer, a Krispy Kreme franchisee who bought his first store in Mobile, Ala., in 1953. He took over from Beatrice, and Krispy Kreme became the McAleer family project.

McAleer dropped the sandwiches and brownies that were clogging the Krispy Kreme line, using what son Jack described as a "back to the basics" strategy. Focusing on the doughnuts allowed Krispy Kreme to rise to the top again.

Now, Krispy Kreme is even taking some tentative steps out of the South, with franchises as far north as Toledo, Ohio, and Fort Wayne, Ind., and west to Kansas City, Mo. Franchises in Texas, Arizona, and Las Vegas are in the planning stages.

The chain is particularly proud of a three-store foothold in bagel capital New York City.

Today, sons Mac McAleer and Jack McAleer run the company, daughter Shannon Silvernail's husband Pat manages the site at Jackson, Miss., and daughter Patty Dorgan and husband Billy own the franchise in Gulfport, Miss.

And this doughnut devotion is spreading to the younger generation. Five of Dorgan's six children work in her store, and Joe's 19-year-old grandson Daniel Tillman is working in the Mobile store before he goes off to Mississippi State University in the fall.

Pub Date: 7/21/97

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