rejectomorph (flying_blind) wrote,

Flames to Donuts

Another entertaining flame war has erupted over this post in lj_biz. The post addresses the recurring issue of whether or not we should be able to boot people from our "friend of" lists, and was precipitated (this time) by the poster having been added to the friends of list of a journal called kkk_membership. Provocative, to be sure, but it turns out to be a journal created by a fan of Krispy Kreme donuts.

I doubt that Krispy Kreme is a front for the actual KKK (though I have no proof of that, of course, and I've always wondered why a company, particularly one based in the south, would switch the C's to K's in its name, given the likelihood (heh -- likelihood -- sorry, couldn't resist) that people would make that connection.) But, leaving aside the issue raised by the post, I am pleased that it was made, as it brought back some pleasant personal memories entirely unrelated to LJ.

Many years ago, a small donut shop opened in my old neighborhood, right near a building which had once been occupied by Greely's Drug Store, which was where we used to buy tickets for the Pacific Electric company's buses which ran to downtown Los Angeles along that street. The donut shop opened many years after Greely's had been closed down, and the Pacific Electric converted into a publicly owned transit service, but the location held pleasant associations for me, so I visited the place despite the fact that I had moved away and it was no longer convenient to me. It turned out that my propensity to allow my nostalgia to influence my actions had led me to the best donuts I had ever tasted.

The place was called Uncle Bob's, which I didn't consider a promising name, and it was a one-man operation open from four o'clock in the morning until Noon. Uncle Bob (I only presume that Bob was the proprietor's real name, and that he was, indeed, someone's uncle) arrived an hour or so before opening time to prepare the day's first batch of savory deep-fried confections. As a late riser, I didn't get to experience the donuts in their full perfection for a few years, arriving as I did when the last batch of the day was growing thin on the racks, but even when a couple of hours old, I found them to be worth a trip out of my way to the old neighborhood, where I could devour them while recalling the memory of Mr. Greely's long-gone ice cream sodas and my childhood trips downtown on the big red smoke-belching buses which the location evoked.

Then some friends moved to a house from which the quickest way back to where I then lived led directly past Uncle Bobs. Many nights, we would spend long hours at their house, and then return to my house in the late hours along the nearly deserted streets, stopping along the way for fresh donuts. If we arrived before Uncle Bob had opened, we would wait in the car, listening to the radio, leaving the windows open in mild weather so as to smell the fragrance of frying donuts which drifted through the quiet night. The anticipation aroused by the scent was invariably rewarded by the incomparable excellence of Uncle Bob's product.

My rhapsodic praise of what is essentially a simple concoction of sweet fried bread, sometimes frosted or powdered or glazed with melted sugar, or various other tasty coverings, is rooted in the fact that through much of my youth, donuts were very nearly my favorite food in the entire world. Los Angeles was once the home of a company called Helms Bakeries, whose fleets of trucks delivered fresh baked goods door to door daily, throughout the city. Being carried out to the Helms truck by my mother as she made her purchases is among my earliest memories. The delivery man would open the back doors of the truck to reveal a series of drawers from which the customer could select from a great variety of goods. One drawer contained nothing but donuts, prepared that morning at one of the two huge bakeries operated by the company. It is likely that the very first donut I ever had came from the back of the Helms truck driven by Phil, the owner of our local route. It was the beginning of an enduring affection.

There was also a small local chain of donut shops in a more distant part of the city. They were called Big Donut Drive-Ins, and there happened to be one located on Century Boulevard, two blocks from my grandmother's house. Now and then, one of our frequent visits to my grandmother would include a stop at the Big Donut Drive-In, where we would often have to shout to be heard above the roar of airplanes passing directly over the building on their approach to Los Angeles International Airport. The buildings in which this company's outlets were located were themselves a delight to me. They were small structures, but ensconced on their rooftops were immense iconic donuts, far larger than the buildings themselves. They were visible from blocks away, and by themselves were enough to arouse in me the desire to indulge in the product they promoted. That, I'm sure, was their intended purpose. It worked very well.

Both Helms and Big Donut Drive-Ins produced an admirable product. Unfortunately, the most ubiquitous chain of donut emporia in the region was a paragon of mediocrity. It was called Winchell's, and while I did occasionally (when in a state of extreme Jonesing) settle for one of their far less than perfect products, I was more often inclined to delay my gratification long enough to seek out a promising independent donut shop when the fit came on me while I was in an unfamiliar neighborhood. While many, if not most, of the independent shops were certainly superior to Winchell's, I had never found any to compare with Uncle Bob's.

I continued to make those frequent early morning visits to my favorite donut shop until the friends who lived beyond it moved to another location. Thereafter I went to Uncle Bob's less often. A couple of years after that, Uncle Bob retired, and his shop came under new ownership, and was given a new name. One day I showed up and found that Uncle Bob's Donuts had become Our Mom's Donuts. Somewhat sadly, but hopeful, I made my first (and what turned out to be my last) purchase from whoever's mom she was.With the first bite, I was amazed that her children had survived her cooking long enough to establish her in the donut business. Mom certainly bore witness to the truth of the old saying among truckers; Never eat at a restaurant called "Mom's!"

Fortune, however, having taken with one hand, in this case gave back with the other. Shortly after Uncle Bob was displaced by the Mom from Donut Hell, there was an influx of Cambodian refugees into Los Angeles. A few of them went into the donut business, with great success, which encouraged others of their displaced countrymen to follow suit. Soon, almost every independent donut shop in the region was being run by Cambodians. Somehow, people from that nation had a gift for making donuts, and even the non-Cambodian owners of existing donut shops were hiring Cambodians to work in their establishments. While I never found a Cambodian operated shop which made donuts as surpassingly excellent as those which had been purveyed by Uncle Bob, they did nevertheless make donuts of greater quality than I had ever found anywhere other than Uncle Bob's.

And, they were everywhere! In any part of the city, any time of day or night, it became possible to acquire a superb specimen of the deep-fryer's art, and for a reasonable price, cheerfully vended by a smiling Cambodian of remarkable efficiency and, in most cases, very little English. This latter was of no consequence to me, as donuts are traditionally selected from the display by pointing, in any case. The donut lovers of the city were delighted, and Winchell's began to bleed red ink all over it's bottom line. This transformation of the Southland's donut industry took place only a few years before I left Los Angeles, at which time Winchell's was struggling on with a doggedness as strong as their stale coffee. I don't know if the chain survived, or ultimately succumbed to the competition, though I'm sure I could find out by Googling for them. I haven't, because I'm not particularly concerned about their fate. When I remember the donuts of Los Angeles, it is not Winchell's product that comes to mind, but the far better donuts of the Cambodians, and, of course, the now unattainable uber-donuts of Uncle Bob's.

Thus it is that when I hear praise of the vaunted Krispy Kreme, I am amused, knowing that they are, routinely, at least equaled by any number of Cambodian donut makers in Los Angeles. And, when the praise of KK's product grows fulsome, I know that, whatever their fans might believe, unless they were in Rosemead, California on an early morning many years ago, and purchased a donut from Uncle Bob, they have never had the ultimate donut experience. It is their great misfortune that, now, unless perhaps some Cambodian donut maker discovers the long-lost secret of making the Perfect Donut which Uncle Bob failed to reveal to Mom, or (apparently) to anyone else, they probably never will.

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