“A donut challenge, you say? I once ate 33 Krispy Kremes in under 15 minutes,” boasted the bartender, polishing a pint glass while behind the bar at the AC Marriott hotel in Butler County, Ohio.
It’s no wonder that the discussion of eating a laughable amount of donuts garners the attention of strangers. After all, donuts are a part of the American identity. Look at Homer Simpson—a man whose love for the breakfast snack is arguably more representative of the American lifestyle than Ronald Reagan and his jellybeans. France has the beignet, Mexico has the churro, the Danes have the Danish, and America, specifically the Midwest, has the modern donut—our cultural take on a hunk of fried dough dunked in sugar, a product of our lineage after watching too many episodes of Twin Peaks.
When my editor told me about the Butler County Donut Trail, I was drinking a large cup of coffee at my desk, my stomach grumbling at the idea of adding a “hyper-local apple fritter” into the mix. Eight family-run donut shops in four hours seemed doable, especially considering it meant I got a nifty t-shirt upon completion and that I got to spend a day out of the office binge eating.
This is the story of the Donut Trail: one of gluttony, jelly-filled wads of dough, and a horde of strangers who love talking about donuts.
Location: Stan the Donut Man, West Chester
Input: Blueberry Sour Cream Donut
We pull in to the first bakery just after dawn. The air is brisk as we make our way into the first shop—a small, unassuming place hidden in a strip mall a few miles from the hotel. Although the girl behind the counter, Miranda, goes to Miami University, she greets us wearing an OSU shirt—a welcome sight to us Columbus travelers. The walls behind her are lined with Cincinnati sports memorabilia and the aroma of freshly baked donuts clings to the walls. Stan the Donut Man has been making donuts for 20 years, quite a feat for a small business in rural Ohio. Miranda pulls out a few of her favorites to show off, and then hands us our donut passport—a small slip of paper that lists all of the donut stops on our route. After I decide on a blueberry sour cream donut to start my food adventure, she marks my card with a stamp that reads “scrumptious”—a perfectly suitable descriptor of my first bite. The donut is warm and velvety. The delectably sweet sour cream icing dissolves quickly in my mouth. I chase the donut with a cup of black coffee, and whistle on my way out the door.
Location: Milton’s Donuts, Middletown
Input: Fried Cream Cheese Donut
As we pull into the lot, I notice a spirited crowd gathered inside the tiny shop, all patiently waiting for an iconic Milton’s donut. “They are the best in the world,” croaks an old man balancing himself on a mahogany cane. Well, technically, for now they are the best in the region, or so says a small sign on the counter asking patrons to cast more votes to make them the “Sweetest Bakery in the Nation.” Each team member is sporting a tie dye t-shirt and scampering around to accommodate the overwhelming amount of guests. I order the fried cream cheese donut, a house favorite. It is about the size of my fist. (Keep in mind, I have the hands of a bone-crushing giant.) I bite into the confection and it immediately oozes lukewarm, gooey cream cheese out the other side. Although the staff is all smiles, I can tell that they are too busy to field questions from nosey journalists, so I get my passport stamped with the word “delicious” and am on my way.
Location: Martin’s Donuts, Trenton
Input: Apple Fritter
By the time we get to Martin’s Donuts—a small standalone, flamingo-pink donut shop in the boonies of Trenton, Ohio—thick flakes of puffy white snow are descending from the sky. Is this powdered sugar? My brain is already starting to feel the dough’s dizzying effects. At any rate, I hustle inside to find Misty helping a customer pick out a dozen. Each donut stop on the trail hosts a small road sign in the front entrance, signifying to guests that they are a participating member of the trail. Martin’s road sign depicts Bigfoot carrying some donuts on his back. A hefty man with long, silver hair named Harley ushers us to the back of the shop, showing us where the magic is made. He recommends the apple fritter, saying that the apples come from an orchard not too far down the road. Considering my fritter fantasy earlier in the week, I snatch one off the tray and take a healthy bite. “So what do you do here?” I ask, mouth full of flakey fritter. “I’m the driver,” says Harley with a grin. “And also the Sasquatch.”
Location: The Donut Spot, Fairfield
Input: Raspberry Cheesecake Donut
About 30 long minutes passed before we reached The Donut Spot—not because it was that far away (about 10 miles or so) but because it was snowing so intensely that we were only able to drive 20 MPH down the long, country roads. Even then, my brakes locked up and caused my poor little Honda Accord to hydroplane, nearly sending us careening into a cornfield. Once I regained control, we lurched forward towards our next destination. No matter, though; the Donut Spot is warm and inviting, with walls striped turquoise and yellow, and decorated with kitschy signs about donut love. I choose a raspberry cheesecake donut, which is light and delectable—a perfect choice after a near-death experience.
Location: Jupiter Donuts, Fairfield
Input: Miami Maple Merger Donut
Even though Jupiter Donuts is burrowed in rural Ohio, it has the feel of a hip, urban donut shop—from the coffee bean mosaic adorning the wall to the chintzy chalkboard menu, to the braided turquoise hair of the young cashier. Although Jupiter is only two years old, it has the feel of a longstanding staple of Fairfield. I take a bite into their Miami Maple Merger, a long john body donut with maple fluff topped with candy pecans, and a smile. It was light, airy, and just the kick of sugar I needed to precede on my way.
Location: Mimi’s Donuts & Bakery, Hamilton
Input: Reese’s Donut
It took about an hour to reach our next destination, but that is largely in part to the yellow Mustang that careened off the road into a small ditch. Nobody was hurt, but we had front row seats watching the tow truck fish out the luxury sports vehicle, unable to turn around due to the line of cars behind us and the increasingly dangerous weather. Sherry, the owner of Mimi’s, greets us with a smile and her famous Reese’s Donut. Having retired from the police force, she watched YouTube videos of how to make donuts, turning her into an aficionado nearly overnight. Her donut was rich and creamy, filled with velvety peanut butter—a savvy and delightful execution for a little old lady/ex-cop. (And yes, she’s heard the jokes.)
Location: Kelley’s Bakery, Hamilton
Input: S’mores Donut
After eating seven donuts, you’d think the smell of another sugar shop would get to be nauseating, but when I stepped inside Kelley’s Bakery, the aroma was comforting. Their specialty S’mores donut was topped with chocolate, graham cracker chunks, and marshmallow pieces, inciting wistfulness for a campfire and a soulful rendition of Kumbaya on acoustic guitar. I smacked my lips, high-fived the nice lady working the counter, and made my way to our final destination.
Location: Ross Bakery, Hamilton
Input: Dirt Trail Donut
By the time we made it into Ross Bakery, the display case was nearly barren. All of the exotic and popular flavors, like maple bacon and devil’s food, were picked over, leaving only run-of-the-mill donut options. Considering they’d be closed in a few hours, all of the early birds got the worms—quite literally, as their specialty Dirt Trail Donut is topped with a multi-colored gummy worm. Fortunately for us, they had expected our arrival and saved us one of their Oreo-topped gummy worm confections. A small child in a puffy pink jacket marveled at the donut as the clerk pulled it from the back room, coyly asking her grandparents for “one of those.” I looked at the expertly crafted donut, felt a food cramp in my belly, looked into the big blue eyes of the hungry little girl, and decided to hand it over, settling for something a little more unadorned to end our journey. The whole family was so excited by the offering that they insisted on taking a group photo with the specialty donut, further affirming the cultural significance of the donut: a reason to get up at the ass crack of dawn and spend precious moments with the ones you love.
Here’s to the donut, and to all of the mom-and-pop shops that wake up even earlier to make our breakfast special—a tasty testament to the American way.