If my oft-appearing and tidally strong nostalgia were to be represented as a food, it would take the form of a donut. Donuts don’t represent tidal strength*, and they themselves don’t figure prominently into my current eating patterns, but more acutely than any other cherished food, donuts have the power to transport me to one of several bygone Life Eras. I’ve written about Hans’ Bakery, the only donut store within a ten-mile radius of my childhood home that’s worth its weight in powdered sugar, but Hans’ is not my one true love.
Swedoughs Doughnuts (Fremont and Broad Streets, Galesburg, IL) holds the honor of being not only my all-time favorite donut joint, but of being one of my favorite places ever. I admit that this statement, coming from a person who has lived in six states, who has visited numerous European nations, and who currently resides in one of the three major metropoli of this fair nation, may seem — how do we put this? — unbalanced. Bear with me.
I’d nearly finished my first year at Knox before being introduced to Swedoughs. Early in my college career, unencumbered by academic obligations, eager to reinforce my image as a fun-loving and free-spirited gal, I regularly stayed up until daybreak. I doubt I’d have kept up this habit had I been the only one ushering in the early hours, but several of my friends shared my schedule, and it was with these friends that I attempted home haircuts/makeovers of questionable motivation, wandered through the dilapidation of the boxcar yard, and played more video games than I’ve every played before or since. These friends introduced me to Swedoughs.
A few short weeks before graduation, we found ourselves awake at 5:00 AM. Throughout the town, automatic sprinklers switched on and began their routine with military precision. The air held the shadow of the humidity that would blossom later that morning, that at noon would swell and suppress our desire to move, but that, at the moment, was nothing more than a half-realized threat. We breathed deep the scents of grass clippings, exhaust fumes, manure. God, I love early summer in the Midwest.
Because Galesburg has no public transit system and because none of us had cars, we walked to Swedoughs. In the present day, a walk of 1.4 miles in my pedestrian-friendly city is nothing. Back then, it seemed considerable. Alternating between sidewalk and shoulder, glancing into the unlit living rooms, I felt like a fugitive. I’ve always loved being awake when others aren’t; in college, I got my fix by staying up all night. Now, to the puzzlement of many, I get up predawn to run. My decision to exercise hours before I head to work has less to do with convenience, I suppose, and more to do with sating my need for absolute stillness: the tranquility that comes to one in the utter absence of human busyness.
Such tranquility manifested itself during that first walk to Swedoughs, nevermind my company. It continued during our early breakfast, solidified as I ate my long john and licked the wax paper wrapper clean of chocolate icing. Swedoughs’ dining room was mostly full, but the lack of concentrated activity raised the place’s relaxation quotient considerably. The old men, fingers stained with nicotine and feed caps smudged with oil, smoked. They read the paper. They sipped coffee after coffee. I mention the old men not because there were no women present (there were), but because the presence of the old men, calm as it was, dwarfed the presence of everyone else at the shop.
During my time at Knox, I visited Swedoughs maybe fifteen times. A donut run wasn’t a weekly — or even monthly — affair. Looking back, I wonder why the hell I didn’t visit Swedoughs more often: the walk wasn’t that long, and I (like pretty much everybody else) was less-than-besotted with the cafeteria’s offerings. Those who knew me in college can attest that I wasn’t, um, concerned with the nutritional value of food. What, then, accounts for the staggering infrequency of Swedoughs visits?
My only guess is that, at a gut level, I predicted the nostalgia I’d feel for Swedoughs and consequently limited my trips there. Rarity equates itself to value, as we all know [see also: Cartier, Alinea, the twice-yearly times I vacuum behind the bed]. That, and I was lazy. Rather than walk partway across town to a place that could have better established itself in my neural pathways, had I visited more often, I chose to get breakfast bagels at the Gizmo, or chocolate Donettes at the Quik Stop, or to snack from the 5-gallon barrel o’ animal crackers my parents sent with me each September. What could have become a weekly ritual remained an occasion.
This feels like a premature announcement, but I think I’ve found San Francisco’s answer to Swedoughs. Tuesday, prior to hanging out with her old co-op mates, prior to seeing Starfucker play the Independent, Anne and I grabbed dinner and donuts on Polk. The tacos (from Nick’s Crispy Tacos) were spot-on: overstuffed, served in a crispy shell enrobed in a soft tortilla, and a bargain ($2 apiece!). Post-taco, I didn’t need a donut. Nobody ever needs a donut. But Anne insisted that I try Bob’s, even if I only got a crueller.
Crossing the threshold of Bob’s, I knew I was in for more than just a crueller. Bob’s is set up such that you select your donut(s) before even setting foot in the shop; the day’s wares are displayed in pans — battered aluminum, the kind used in school cafeterias — in the front window. What you see is exactly what you get. I spent a few moments considering my options (fritters, Danishes, crullers, chocolate iced), conceded that anything I got would be freaking delicious, and entered.
My all-time favorite donut (a chocolate-iced long john filled with Bavarian creme) wasn’t available for purchase, so I selected a chocolate-frosted buttermilk stick. (The shape, at least, was similar.) More like a biscuit in texture and flavor, the stick’s icing was surprisingly mild. I was raised in the tradition of uebersaccharine icing — the stuff so sweet it makes you reel — and I’m pleased that Bob’s deviates from that tradition.
Seated at the counter on a hard, plastic stool, I watched the last light drain from the sky. The clientele at Bob’s is different from the Swedoughs crowd, and the shop’s interior isn’t as cozy, but as I broke my donut into bite-sized pieces, I felt an approximation of that familiar calm. Time will determine whether Bob’s develops the same emotional primacy that Swedoughs did; part of me believes that it simply can’t. Even if it doesn’t, a solid donut shop is a welcome addition to any routine, anywhere.
*But then, what food would? A steak? A fortress of breadsticks cemented with hummus?