By Lowell Thing
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Perhaps only because my life has been mainly spent in communities, large towns and small, where there chanced not to be a Krispy Kreme outlet am I here thin and vital enough to tell this story — the story of a pioneer discoverer of the greatest doughnuts ever made, a story of the chance turning of a corner, of sound instincts and life-changing decisions, ultimately of vanishing trails of sugar flakes, and, in somewhat of a digression, of Batman and Robin and Captain Marvel.
It was the summer of 1944 and I was 11 years old, a newcomer to Winston-Salem, North Carolina, then home of the largest skyscraper in the South, the R. J. Reynolds Building, home in turn to Camel Cigarettes and other tobacco products that soon I would be trying out myself. My mother managed a clothing store, it was summertime, and I was free to roam about the city and perfect my new Southern accent (we were from southern Illinois but that's not the same). We lived in a hotel near downtown, a ramshackle old place, but convenient to the store and the food was good. Sometimes we ate in a boarding house where the food was also good, if a bit wholesome.
On one of those summer days when I could no longer shine brass at my mother's store (because of the Child Labor people), I took a long walk over to the Salem side of town. Winston-Salem used to be two towns but at some point was combined into one. Salem was the old, historic part where the Moravians had settled and where they still made candles and sold them in candle shops. Salem College was there too, a women's college, where the women dressed in those 1940s-style short-sleeved sweaters and skirts that allowed you to glimpse a leg once in a while. However, because this was summertime, there didn't seem to be anyone around. I remember how empty, quiet, old, historic, and frankly rather boring it was seeming to me that day after such a long walk when something began to interest me in a visceral 11-year old sort of way: the smell of some kind of bakery.
(Digression: Bakeries had been a life-long interest of mine since our third grade class in Mt. Vernon had toured the only bakery in Mt. Vernon and we had gone behind the scenes to see a huge vat of yeasty dough rising. To continue this digression, there were only two kinds of bread in Mt. Vernon, bread and whole-wheat bread. Rye bread apparently never came to the city until long after I moved away. But, to tell the truth, I was perfectly happy with the two kinds of bread I knew. I always felt sorry for Heidi because she to eat that hard, black bread.)
At any rate, there I was in Salem, now enveloped by an aroma that I traced past the candle shops, and to the next block over, sort of off the beaten tourist path. I turned a corner and saw a kind of low, nondescript, industrial building, as I recall it now, with a sign that said "Krispy Kreme." (Even then, I would have probably preferred something like "Aunt Hattie's Fried Circles"... because by this time I knew without even entering the shop that there were going to be some doughnuts in there.) It looked like they made them on one side of the building and sold them on the other. So I stepped into a Krispy Kreme store for the very first time. And, unless I'm mistaken, at this time, this was the only Krispy Kreme store you could step into. This was "the original" Krispy Kreme that would later be written up in Sunday supplements and described in stock offerings. However, I didn't know any of that at the time. The place looked fairly ordinary. I just wanted to see what kind of doughnuts they made because I had always had an interest in bakeries of various forms.
I could see right away that these doughnuts were going to be good, so I ordered a bagfull. I believe it was three or four but it may have been six, and I took them out of the shop (about which I remember only perhaps that they had a old screen door but I may be making that up). I then walked slowly back toward the Winston part of town, eating the doughnuts as I walked along in a kind of Walt Whitman mood and, frankly, not in any hurry. I took one out of the bag and it had that familiar doughnut feel to it: soft (I'm going to try to keep sex out of this) yet a bit crusty, contained, compact, slick, almost capable of escaping and running away (as indeed, in some children's stories certain doughnuts have done) — if not held with sufficient purpose, respect, and commitment. (My paper on "The Evanescent Tactility of the Doughnut" is currently being peer-reviewed.)
So I ate my first Krispy Kreme, and I suppose it was just as good if not better than every one since: the doughnut was fluffy yet firm, neither doughy nor airy, just a little greasy but not actually oily, covered with very light and translucent flakes of sugar that fell away like snowflakes into the North Carolina summer afternoon if they managed to escape my mouth. That much perhaps can be haltingly described. However, the exact experience of biting into and chewing a Krispy Kreme was as complex and mysterious then as I suppose it is now and led one invariably to the next doughnut and to the next. It was pretty clear to me that I had discovered "the" doughnut that I had always dreamed about and once or twice glimpsed the outlines of in various homes about Mt. Vernon, Illinois, where doughnuts were being fried.
In the future, it was not always easy to find the time to get back to Salem and the Krispy Kreme shop. It was a long walk, and I was in school and still worked some, when the Child Labor people were deemed not to be around, in my Mom's store (women's ready-to-wear). In my spare time, I took up amateur radio, acting, magic, Monopoly, and comic books, which brings me to the somewhat related event of my acquaintance with a comic book trading partner, whose name I'll say was Billy to spare him any possible embarrassment. Billy lived over in the Salem side of town, so I could sometimes combine errands: trade a few comics and then hike on out to the Krispy Kreme. The digression I need to make here is about Billy's collection. In his room in a pitifully dilapidated old frame house in a run-down old neighborhood was a box (he kept it under his bed) containing the very first issues of Batman and Superman comics, including issues numbers 1, 2, etc. These, of course, were not trading material (nor was my own collection of the first issues of Captain Marvel). My eyes literally bugged out at his collection, valuable even in the 1940's, and I smiled to myself even then to contemplate the ironies of his situation, superficially impoverished, yet, to a peer, incomparably rich. And, not only that, he even lived close to the Krispy Kreme shop.
The following summer, my mother was transferred to Spartanburg, South Carolina, and they didn't have a Krispy Kreme there, and after that on to Atlanta, and then to Stamford, Connecticut, and then Chicago, and finally Miami, and in none of these towns was there a Krispy Kreme (although there may be one now). Sans Krispy Kreme, the doughnut more or less disappeared from my radar during this time, although there were certainly other interests, compulsions, and delights. Finally, one year I graduated from college, then on into the Air Force where I navigated planes up to Greenland and down to Chile but never once ran into a doughnut at all like a Krispy Kreme. In fact, there were moments when I forgot about them. Then, one year, and it was many years later, I saw the name again.
It was around 1985. I was on a business trip to Raleigh, North Carolina, when there, on the superhighway near my motel, I saw the name that brought back Winston-Salem. Could it be the same? I fought to stay calm, keep the car under control, and obey traffic rules. Was it "the" Krispy Kreme? Yes, it was, I found — the same doughnut, everything about it was the same. The store was different, of course, and obviously they had decided to branch out, and I wondered why it had taken them so long and why we still had none of them up North. I took a bagful back to the motel. The trip was short and, because they were closed when I had to catch my plane back, I didn't get a chance to take some back. I had almost gotten over these indescribable doughnuts, it had taken years, and now my mind was to be henceforth haunted by the name and the fact that mocked us all in Northern parts: we had no Krispy Kremes, and it began to occur to me that perhaps it had something to do with the Civil War.
That's really the end of this story except that I have continued to live afar from Krispy Kreme and to wonder if it isn't some genetic self-preservation mechanism. I saw some in the Port Authority Terminal the last time I was in New York City and somehow they didn't seem the same, somehow smaller and of a more transient pleasure. I have done the best I could with Dunkin' Donuts for which I once developed a minor addiction, but, in truth, those holesome morsels bear little relationship to a Krispy Kreme. I continued to support Bill Clinton through all his tribulations in part because of his own addiction to Krispy Kremes. (I heard of no such addictions from his detractors and tormentors.) When Krispy Kreme went public, I contacted the stock underwriter and thought about applying for some shares. I didn't and the stock went as high as I knew it would. But I realized that I didn't care whether I had stock in the company. I just wanted — right then, immediately, whenever I thought of it — another one of those doughnuts.