“No matter what, everybody eats donuts,” laughs Ben Aivati. Ben owns Donut Touch, a donut shop servicing the business strip on Mira Mesa Boulevard. I believe him, and it’s a testament to the attractive power of these rings of fried dough. For there is a popular bias against them, and not just because donuts are often placed in a category with fast food and soda pop. McDonald’s will be with us at the Olympics. Santa Claus drinks Coca-Cola. But only Homer Simpson eats donuts. I can’t think of another popular figure who is portrayed as a donut lover, and so we who eat them are left with a lingering sense of pop-culture shame. We are not validated by the mass media. There are no donut shops where TV’s hip gen-Xers meet, no intellectual donut enclaves. But if we can elevate that low-brow icon, the diner, à la Seinfeld, surely we can elevate the donut shop; it will be better than the diner, precisely because it will not be dressed up. The elevation will come from the puff-loving souls of the customers.
A possible example, cinéma vérité. Boy meets girl at donut shop. They both blush, caught in the indulgence of an uncool, uncelebrated passion in an uncool, undecorated environment. But they recover. Hey, donuts are good, darn it, and who cares what the world says?
“We’re young rebels,” the girl proclaims, “and what better way to frustrate the boring and the broken-down than to claim their pastry as our own?”
“I love donuts,” cries the boy, “and what’s more, I love you!”
She brushes the cinnamon from his cheek and kisses him with a mouth sticky with raspberry filling.
Ben, an affable man whose face is just beginning to relax into a comfortable middle age, would surely welcome such an elevation. At Donut Touch, donuts are not junk food, they are pastries, and a donut is not a donut is not a donut. “People are in the hunt for a good donut. You can’t find the damn thing anymore. We do a lot of business with people who come from all over for our donuts. People know the taste. They know donuts. These are the best. The reason is because we do it right. You know, you have to have it, for any kind of job you do. If you don’t have that touch… That’s why we call it Donut Touch, because we have the touch for donuts.”
The making of a perfect donut begins with the mix, which arrives in 50-pound bags from several suppliers. “I buy from Dawn, I buy from Westco, I buy from Lakeside. I can tell the difference between all the mixes in this country because I’ve been doing it for 25 years. I taste the donuts, I can tell. I go for the best of what each supplier has to offer. My cake product, I get from Westco. Raised, I get from Dawn.” For anyone who doesn’t know the difference, raised are the great big puffy ones, and cake are the smaller, denser ones.
Ben doesn’t stop there. “This base, you can mix it to your own needs; you can control it. We have the base; we add a few other things to it to make a different taste — excellent. Our donuts are very good because we have control over that. I don’t care about money. I pay to have the quality product.”
The pursuit of donut excellence at any cost extends even to the shortening in which the donuts are fried. “From Dawn, I buy a shortening they have designed only for frying donuts —100 percent vegetable oil. [A mix of cottonseed and soybean.] Nobody uses lard anymore. Shortening ranges from $15 for a 50-pound box to $22. The reason I’m paying $22 is because it’s got no palm oil, and palm oil is bad. It’s high cholesterol. It burns, it smokes, it adds a subtle aftertaste to your product. So I don’t use that. I use top of the line.”
Finally, we arrive at the donut touch, the touch of the donut maker himself. To plumb these mystic depths, I spent a night watching Jorge, one of the bakers, practice his craft.
Jorge arrives on bicycle at the shop at a quarter to one, unlocks, turns on the lights, parks his bike in the back, and begins work. He is lean and muscular, of medium height, dressed in green pants, white hightops, T-shirt, and teal ball cap, worn backwards and sporting the Donut Touch name.
The kitchen is small — everything is a few steps from everything else. I am pleased by the meeting of utility and attractiveness in the stainless steel and white and coffee-brown tile that dominates the area. A large cutting board lines one wall; a scale stands at the end. Turning to the right, I find the industrial-size mixer; turn right again, and there’s the fryer. Sliding across, I come to the glaze pit, sort of an enlarged paint tray, and a counter for the racks. Beneath this are the trays holding the icings and toppings. The bins that hold the donut mixes are under the cutting board.
Jorge dips into one of these with a large scoop and measures out ten pounds of buttermilk cake mix onto the triple-balance scale. He slides the mix into the mixer, measures out and takes the temperature of a pitcher of water, adds it, and starts the mixer, moving the hand of a clock mounted on the wall next to it. The second hand sweeps around one minute. Jorge ups the speed, adds some water with a squirt bottle to correct the consistency, and sets the mixer for three minutes.
He dredges the glaze, agitating it with quick openings and closings of the jaws of a wide scoop. Pinches up a mass of the stuff — a mix of powdered sugar, starch, honey, vanilla, and water — and drizzles it across the rack above the pit. Adds water to improve the texture, and repeats. White cascades fall from the jaws of the scoop and break into ribbons before sliding through the grill of the rack. He does this often, whenever there is a lull in the activity.