Podcast 343 – The Birth of the Legendary Donut

In 1847, Hanson Crockett Gregory of Rockport, Maine, invented the donut while working as a ship’s cook on a schooner.

In Episode 343 Jeff Belanger and Ray Auger sail the harbor of Rockport, Maine, to witness the birth of the donut. In 1847, a young sailor named Hanson Crockett Gregory, made an innovation in the “oily-cake” that changed Maine… New England… America… the World… the Time-Space Continuum. Every legend, every icon, starts somewhere. WARNING: This episode WILL make you hungry!

Read the episode transcript.


Produced and hosted by: Jeff Belanger and Ray Auger
Edited by: Ray Auger
Guest Voice Talent: Marv Anderson
Theme Music by: John Judd

Apple Podcasts/iTunes | Spotify | Pandora | Amazon Podcasts | TuneIn | iHeartRadio

New England Legends Facebook Group

Captain Hanson Crocket Gregory - inventor of the donut.

Captain Hanson Crocket Gregory – inventor of the donut.

The grave of Capt. Hanson Gregory in Quincy, Massachusetts.

The grave of Capt. Hanson Gregory in Quincy, Massachusetts.

*A note on the text: Please forgive punctuation, spelling, and grammar mistakes. Like us, the transcripts ain’t perfect.

RAY: What a beautiful morning here by the water in Rockport, Maine, Jeff.
JEFF: It is! The sea air smells great, the sunlight is shimmering on the water, and the fishing boats are moving in and out of Rockport Harbor.
RAY: I’m getting kinda hungry too.
JEFF: Me too!
RAY: Whenever I’m in Maine I can’t help but crave seafood.
JEFF: I love seafood. It’s pretty tough to be from where we’re from and not love seafood. Shrimp, clams…
RAY: Lobster, cod, fish and chips…
JEFF: All good stuff. It’s a little early for the local restaurants to be open for lunch yet, but there’s definitely something we can get right now, and it’s the reason why we’re here.
RAY: We’re here for food?
JEFF: We are! A legendary food. One of the most important and beloved foods not just in New England, but dare I say all of America… dare I say the world!
RAY: I’m listening…
JEFF: We’ve come to Rockport, Maine, to witness the birth of the donut.
JEFF: I’m Jeff Belanger.
RAY: And I’m Ray Auger. Welcome to Episode 343 of the New England Legends podcast. Thanks for joining us as we seek out every legend in New England one story at a time. From odd history to ghosts and monsters to aliens and the just plain weird, we love exploring everything that makes New England like no other place. It takes a community to do this, so please reach out to us anytime through our Web site with your story leads. And please be sure to subscribe to our podcast wherever you get your podcasts and tell a friend or two about us. That’s how we grow.
JEFF: We’ll explore the birth of the donut right after this word from our sponsor.
RAY: Okay, Jeff… the donut was born in Rockport, Maine?
JEFF: It was! Sort of…
RAY: Sort of?
JEFF: Sort of. I mean the donut had its precursors.
RAY: I get that. And of course Dunkin Donuts was born in New England, so maybe this all makes sense.
JEFF: That’s right! But before there was Dunkin’ there needed to be a donut.
RAY: That makes total sense. A little more background on Rockport. It was originally part of Megunticook Plantation. It was first settled in the 1760s. The town incorporated as Camden in 1791, but was called Goose River until it was renamed Rockport in 1852, then it eventually separated from Camden. The shipping industry declined quite a bit by the late 1800s, but the town experienced a rebirth years later thanks to tourism.
JEFF: It’s the perfect backdrop for this tasty tale that has it all. Life at sea, the open ocean, salty sailors, and one of the most tempting pastries ever to grace our guts. So let’s head back to 1847, and witness the birth of a legend.
RAY: It’s the spring of 1847 here in Goose River, Maine. Goose River is a sea-fairin’ town to be sure. Fishing, shipping, and ship building are big industries here, but also ice harvesting in the winter. The ice is shipped by boat south where they sell it to warmer climates. The other big business here is the extraction of lime for construction, cleaning, and even fertilizer. Lime is shipped out all over the world from this harbor.
JEFF: Sailors are busy people. They need to have their ships and cargo ready because time and tide wait for no one. Sometimes that means skipping meals or grabbing food and eating while you work.
RAY: Sure, I can relate. There’s plenty of time I need to eat on the job or on my way to work.
JEFF: A favorite treat around these parts is something called an oil-ly cake. It’s a deep-fried, round cake coated with sugar. It’s delicious, but messy.
RAY: Some of the best treats are messy.
JEFF: So true.
RAY: Enter 16-year-old Hanson Crockett Gregory. He’s a local kid who finds work as a cabin boy and cook on a lime-trading schooner.
RAY: With the schooner at sea, and the ocean and weather relatively calm, there’s a little more time for cooking and eating. Young Hanson Gregory has quite the appetite, especially for these oily-cakes or as he sometimes calls them: fried cakes.
RAY: He can’t get enough of them. So he makes a bunch for himself and his crew. Still, Gregory does see one big problem with the oily-cakes.
JEFF: What’s that?
RAY: They are messy for one.
JEFF: Sure.
RAY: But the bigger problem is that the middle part is often undercooked. The cooking oil pools in the middle and soaks the cake underneath. Gregory figures there has to be a better way.
JEFF: So there’s Gregory shaping the dough into the round cakes to get them ready for frying up in the oil.
JEFF: He’s working the dough. Forming the shapes… and that’s when… that’s when… Ray… what’s happening?
RAY: I’m not sure, Jeff. I’m hearing the voices of angels. I see a light shining down from heaven… it’s shining on that round lid on that tin box in Gregory’s galley.
JEFF: Time slows. For Gregory, it’s like the ship has stopped moving at sea. Every sailor on board seems frozen in time except for the young cook. He hears the voice of God. He sees the round lid of the tin box. He sees the round dough cakes… he sees the round tin…. He sees the dough cakes… the round tin… cakes… tin…
JEFF: Gregory just pushed the uncooked dough over the round lid and knocked a hole in the middle of the cake so now it’s a ring.
RAY: And just like that the time-space continuum returns to normal. The ship is sailing again, the crew are going about their business, and that’s when Gregory tosses his ring of dough into the hot oil.
RAY: A few minutes later, out pops an oily-cake cooked to perfection. No undercooked dough in the middle. No pool of oil. Just a perfect round cake.
JEFF: The crew agree this version of the oily cake is better. A huge improvement.
JEFF: When his ship returns to the port at Goose River, Hanson Gregory races home to show his mom, Mary his new invention.
JEFF: His mother is impressed.
RAY: Gregory finds some tin to form the perfect shape for making these holes in the oily cakes and pretty soon.
RAY: Mary begins making these new treats in bulk and selling them all along Maine’s midcoast. And suddenly… the donut is born. And it’s a big hit! Years later, now Captain Hanson Crockett Gregory reflects on his invention.
CAPT. GREGORY: My mother used to make them of long thin strips of dough, doubled over and twisted. And when I was a boy we used to call ‘em twisters. I noticed that they were apt to soak in fat, and the doughnuts, which in those days were cut square or diamond-shaped, did not cook in the middle. You couldn’t get them done inside without scorching the outside, so I tried cutting them out with a biscuit cutter, and making a hole in the center. The idea spread like wild fire. The captain’s wife used to fry doughnuts sometimes on our trips, but after she ate mine, she wouldn’t make any more.
When I got home I told my mother about it and she made some with the hole and sent them around to the neighbors. People all around began to make them that way. One of my friends told me I ought to get out a cutter with a ring inside for the hole, and have it patented; but I didn’t know anything about patents, and never thought of such a thing.
RAY: And that brings us back to today.
JEFF: There’s a second version to the birth story legend of the donut.
RAY: What’s that.
JEFF: It still gives credit to Captain Hanson Crockett Gregory… Anyway, the story goes he was tired of the oily, undercooked middle of the oily cake, so he jammed it on the end of a spoke in the ship’s wheel to knock it out. And that’s how the donut was born.
RAY: Got it.
JEFF: And we must admit to taking some liberties. We can’t be sure that time stopped, angels sang, and God spoke.
RAY: No, but that’s probably how it happened.
JEFF: The donut has since gone on to world-wide acclaim. Captain Hanson Crockett Gregory died June 13, 1921 at 89 years of age. He was born in Camden, Maine, but died and is buried in Quincy, Massachusetts. The epitaph on his tombstone reads: Capt. Hanson Gregory, Recognized by the National Bakers Association as the inventor of the doughnut. In 1947, a monument was placed on Old County Road in Glen Cove, Maine, that reads: In commemoration: This is the birthplace of Captain Hanson Gregory who invented the hole in the donut in the year 1847. Erected by his friends October 31, 1947.
RAY: Okay, wait. Captain Gregory died in Quincy, Massachusetts?
JEFF: He did.
RAY: Okay… this could be one of the biggest synchronicities ever… In 1948, a man name Bill Rosenberg started a restaurant called Open Kettle in Quincy, Massachusetts. He sold coffee and donuts. In 1950, he decided to change the name to…(PAUSE FOR DRAMA) Dunkin’ Donuts, and a New England institution was born that also went worldwide.
JEFF: And now you can’t turn your head more than 30 degrees without seeing a Dunkin’.
RAY: Today, each summer Rockport, Maine, holds a donut festival featuring food, dancing, cornhole tournaments—though they call them donut hole tournaments here, a parade, and more donuts than you could ever eat.
JEFF: In Rockport, Maine, they’re still proud of the little pastry born here that would go on to become an American icon and staple. A pastry so perfect, it still tempts us at every turn. A pastry called… the donut.
RAY: There’s something so perfect about the donut. And that brings us to After the Legend where we take a deeper dive into this week’s story and sometimes veer off course.
JEFF: After the Legend is brought to you by our patreon patrons! They are the best! We can’t make this journey without them. It takes a lot of time and money to bring you two episodes each week. Our patrons help us with all of the costs it takes to do what we do. Imagine if we only had more patrons? It’s just $3 bucks per month. That’s like buying me and Ray a couple of donuts. And for that you get early ad-free access to all of our new episodes plus bonus episodes and content that no one else gets to hear. Please head over to patreon.com/newenglandlegends to sign up.
If you’ve listened this far, Jeff and I want to say we love you. And chances are you’ve got a few warm and fuzzy feelings for us if we’ve arrived here together. So please do us a favor and take just a few seconds to post a review for us. Then tell a friend or two about us. It’s a critical part of helping the cause. The bigger our audience, the more people who share their strange tales. We need you to stay involved. Also, download our free New England Legends app, and go to our Web site to see a calendar for dates to see Jeff in his on-going story tour and dates to see my band the Pub Kings.
We’d like to thank Marv Anderson for lending his voice acting talents this week, thank you to our sponsors, thanks to our patreon patrons, and our theme music is by John Judd.
Until next time remember… the donutis closer than you think!

Liked it? Take a second to support New England Legends on Patreon!
Become a patron at Patreon!

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.