By Andy Duffy
I studied the deer through the scope of my rifle. The buck was big; I had no doubt. As he slowly meandered toward the brush, I centered my crosshairs on his vitals. I would have time to either squeeze off a shot or take another bite of my doughnut. I put down my rifle and reached for the doughnut.
Well, that never happened. But fried cakes, aka doughnuts, are an important part of deer season, at least for those in my family.
When I was a kid, deer season always began in the kitchen with my grandmother. Her fried cakes were the best deer stand food known to man.
It may be worthwhile to tell a little about my maternal grandmother, Dessa Elnora Kinney Markham. She was born in 1896, a mere 20 years after the Battle of the Little Bighorn. Her father was born in 1869, a scant 10 years after Billy the Kid was born, maybe. Her mother was born in 1877. That was the year Sitting Bull led his band of Lakota into Canada to get away from Colonel Nelson Miles. It was also the year that Chief Crazy Horse surrendered to U.S. troops in Nebraska. For all I know, Grandma knew people who went west on the Oregon Trail. Had she been born in the northwest, she almost certainly would have.
I’m just mentioning the dates to emphasize that my grandma learned to do things in traditional ways. She was one generation removed from living in the most exciting time in U.S. history.
Grandma was 33 and the mother of two when the stock market crashed. There’s a lot I don’t know about Grandma’s adult life. I learned early that some memories were still too painful to talk about. I know that Grandma and Grandpa lost their home, though. Later, Grandma lost her husband. As I understand it, he left her for another woman. Husbandless and homeless, she spent all her adult years I knew anything about living with various relatives. She seemed to have a sequence. She would visit her sisters. She would visit a couple of cousins. She would visit her son. Come the first part of November, though, she was always at our home to help my mother with Thanksgiving preparations – and, of course, to make doughnuts for deer season.
Historians tell us that they can trace the origins of our modern doughnuts back to the oil cakes Dutch settlers cooked in New Amsterdam. The doughnuts were like ours today, but they lacked the hole in the middle.
Even the words doughnut and fried cake are old. Way back in 1809, Washington Irving described the “dough-nuts,” often called fried cakes, that were fried in hog’s fat and were seldom found at that time except in homes of the Dutch. (As far as anyone knows, the first time the alternative spelling “donut” appeared in print was in 1900. Use that spelling, though, and old newspapermen will look askance at you. The Associated Press Stylebook makes it clear that the preferred spelling is “doughnut.”)
The hole may have appeared in 1847. The Mexican-American war was raging then. Hanson Gregory didn’t see any war action, though. He was a 16-year-old kid on a lime-hauling ship somewhere. According to him, he was the person who first decided that doughnuts would be better with a hole in the middle. He said that when he got back from his voyage, he showed his mother his technique for getting the dough cooked all the way through. She began cooking them that way, and doughnuts with holes in the middle soon became popular.
Whatever the history behind them, my grandmother’s doughnuts had holes. Each fall, I would sit and watch her as she worked. She would mix all the ingredients together – the sugar, eggs, flour, nutmeg and ginger – and then roll out the dough.
She was still in her 60s then, but she was already crippled up some from arthritis and hobbled rather than walked. So, she would cut out five or six doughnuts with the doughnut cutter, lay them on her arm, and limp from the table to the kettle of hot lard on the stove. There, she would carefully put the doughnuts in the hot grease – getting splattered by the stuff was no fun – and tend them till they were done. When the cakes were done on the bottom side, she would turn them with a fork. When they were cooked all the way through, she would remove them from the grease, sit them on their sides to cool in an old-style oven pan we had, cut out some more doughnuts and repeat the process.
Grandma would put most of the material cut from the middle of the cakes back with the rest of the dough to make more doughnuts. Some of the hole material, she would cook. Today, people call them doughnut holes. We always called them “middles.” Little in life tastes better than a hot doughnut middle and a glass of cold milk.
This sentiment may have its skeptics, but I think country folk are more in tune with the seasons than their urban counterparts are. In the country, we trace the seasons with a series of little gradations.
In the spring, we work up our gardens and plant radishes and peas. Then the first of the morels come, and we plant the root crops. When the morels are about done, we begin fishing for trout. We bring in the rhubarb. We plant corn and beans. We look for bedding bluegills. We begin fishing for bass. A little later, the tomato, pepper and squash plants go in. Then, in quick succession, the berries come: strawberries, cherries, raspberries, and blackberries. Peas are swollen in their pods, and gardeners cream them with tiny potatoes taken prematurely from the ground. The combination is delicious. Apples swell on the limbs of the trees. We begin taking corn from our gardens. September comes, and we start making applesauce. We also begin hunting grouse, squirrels and then woodcock. Nights begin getting cold. Raccoon season opens.
When I was a kid, I didn’t understand all the minor nuances of the changing seasons. I knew, though, that people wore brown to hunt small game. They wore red plaid wool to hunt deer. I also understood that when Grandma made an appearance at our house, deer season was about to begin, and Thanksgiving Day would closely follow.
My dad, unlike me, knew everything. He was born in Flint. The depression chased his family from the city. My grandpa found employment on a series of farms. So, while Dad was growing up, he dug potatoes, drove teams of horses and learned about farm life. I remember how amazed I was when as a five-year-old kid my dad and my great uncle harnessed a team of horses and plowed up a garden spot.
Dad served in the Navy through almost all of World War II. He graduated from high school in 1941. At some point before the war started, he tried to enlist in the Navy. Because he needed dental work and had a bad knee from a football injury, the Navy wouldn’t take him. Then came Dec. 7, and the government had a use for him after all. During the war, Dad worked on a net tender maintaining nets at the mouth of Frisco Bay and on a destroyer out in the South Pacific. What he didn’t learn in his youth, he learned in the Navy.
Dad fell in love with mom the first time he laid eyes on her. It was her first day of high school. With her long, red hair in braids, she must have cut quite the figure as she climbed aboard Dad’s school bus. “There,” dad told himself, “is the girl I’m going to marry.” I know now that Mom wouldn’t have been there that morning if it hadn’t been for her dad’s infidelity.
Things certainly didn’t go as my dad had planned. He only saw Mom once or twice during the war. After the war, he found employment at an automobile factory an hour away from my mother. He was restless, though. After he nearly lost a finger to a punch press, he re-enlisted in the Navy. That is how he became a veteran of both World War II and the Korean conflict. He and Mom didn’t get married until 1950, and he finally took his second discharge in 1952.
Most of the deer dad shot he must have taken between his enlistments. He always had lots of deer hunting stories to tell. He had a few racks hanging in the old shed out beyond the house. He had a Band-Aid box filled with the old, metal deer tags and bullets he’d recovered from deer he’d shot. I don’t remember him bringing home any deer, though, until the mid ’60s.
There may have been a good reason, however, for his deerless seasons. He was still in the Navy during the 1952 deer season. That was the year Michigan let hunters take a deer of either sex during the last three days of the season. The herd was devastated. For years after that, a lot of hunters had trouble finding deer. The doughnuts, though, were a constant. Dad would take them to the woods with him, and he would grab a couple more when he arrived home. When I was old enough to begin hunting, Grandma’s fried cakes always accompanied me to the woods.
I have my grandma’s old recipe. Before we got married, my wife went through my mom’s files and copied down all my favorite recipes. The recipe box she presented to me later was the greatest gift a bride-to-be could ever give a guy. Of course, she included the doughnut recipe.
I don’t know if today’s generation would love Grandma’s doughnuts as much as I do. For one thing, the recipe calls for two tablespoons of melted lard. A person can substitute shortening. Still, I wonder how many people would wrinkle their noses just from the thought of using genuine animal fat in their doughnuts.
The recipe also calls for the doughnuts to be cooked in hot grease. The hot grease, of course, is lard. Although Grandma sometimes used shortening, she and mom agreed that lard made the best doughnuts and pie crusts.
Plus, the doughnuts’ texture is slightly different from the texture of the cake doughnuts we find in bakeries today. Made from grandma’s recipe, doughnuts are a little denser. They may be a little tougher, too, like the tough old woodsmen and plainsmen who carved farms out of the wilderness and the soldiers and sailors who were on the seas and the battlefields during this country’s wars. Nothing, though, tastes better to me than a mid-morning doughnut when I’m out in the woods waiting for a deer to come by. And nothing tastes better when, back in the house, I sit down in a warm kitchen at a table covered with a red-checked tablecloth to eat a hot doughnut fresh from the kettle.
Here is my grandma’s doughnut recipe:
2 c. sugar
2 eggs } mix good
1 t. nutmeg
¼ t. ginger
1 t. vanilla
2 T. melted lard
Dissolve 1 t. soda in 2 c. buttermilk or sour milk.
2 t. baking powder sifted with 7 or 8 c. flour.
Hot grease – 7 or 8
If the recipe seems a little cryptic, it probably didn’t to those of my grandmother’s generation. I suppose people then, used to making things at home, understood how to do things the recipe maker didn’t bother explaining – things such as mixing ingredients together. The creator of this recipe assumes people will know how to do tasks that may be foreign to members of today’s generation. This might help:
Don’t obsess over mixing sequences. I just try to get everything mixed together well.
The lard business?
Cooks who can’t find lard or don’t want to mix it in the doughnut dough can substitute their favorite brand of shortening.
When I was a kid, an old-fashioned slaughterhouse stood on the outskirts of town. Mom would go there to buy her freshly-rendered lard. The slaughterhouse closed years ago, so that source of cooking grease is gone. I recently checked with two slaughterhouses that remain in the area, and neither business renders lard. I can’t find anything now like the substance I remember. Nowadays, the product labeled lard has been hydrogenated to extend shelf life. If a person knows of a source for real, old-fashioned lard, he should get some to use at least once.
There is no need to use sour milk or buttermilk to make doughnuts. My dad used to tell me that it’s never necessary to use sour milk in recipes. He said it was often called for just because using it for baking beat throwing it out. I have wondered if the acid in the milk was responsible for some helpful chemical reaction. I’ve looked for information supporting that, though, and can’t find anything. And when I use sweet milk, it works just as well as sour milk does. If a person wants to, though, he can always sour milk with a little vinegar.
Once the doughnut dough is all mixed up, dump it out on a floured pastry sheet. My grandma would dump hers right out on our old “oilcloth”–covered dining room table. Then sift a liberal amount of flour on top of the dough to keep it from sticking to the rolling pin. When I made up the batch of doughnuts pictured here, I didn’t have enough flour left to sprinkle on top of the dough. Before rolling it out, I went to town and got more flour. The step is that important.
Roll out the dough until it is about the thickness of a doughnut cutter. Then cut out the doughnuts. If you don’t have a doughnut cutter, buy one. I just found one online that sells for $1.99. Cook the doughnut holes or knead them back in with the rest of the dough.
The doughnuts are deep-fried just as a person would fry shrimp. When the grease is hot, carefully put in a few doughnuts. Cook them until they look done. It’s not complicated. They should be turned once during the cooking operation. I think Grandma always turned hers with a fork, but I prefer using tongs.
The “7 or 8” at the end of the recipe is an electric stove setting, not a cooking time. Because I’m certain Grandma’s fried cake recipe was around before the advent of electric stoves, I’m equally certain the “7 or 8” was an edit added to the original recipe.
After the doughnuts are cooked, put them on a paper towel to cool. The towel will absorb any traces of hot oil on the doughnuts. Then, if you want to, while the doughnuts are still warm, roll some of them in granulated sugar. Roll some doughnut holes in cinnamon sugar. If you must, roll some doughnuts in powdered sugar. I don’t advise it, though.
Make a batch of doughnuts after the weather cools in the fall and have one with a glass of cider. Don’t make them too early, though, or they’ll be gone by the beginning of the firearms deer season. A person really needs a few to take to the woods on opening day.
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