Ledes from the Land of Enchantment

The revival of spudnut, America’s forgotten Halloween treat

The rise of what was once the largest donut empire in the United States began at sea. When Bob Pelton, a drugstore from Salt Lake City, came home from his European tour as a baker for the U.S. Navy in the 1930s, he had potato donuts on his mind. It wasn’t an original idea. Germans like to start their celebrations before Lent with platters of Carnival, yeast-baked donuts, which are often prepared with mashed potatoes. Similar recipes had already wandered across the Atlantic with the kind permission of German immigrants in Pennsylvania, who called the donuts Carnival.

However, Pelton had the idea of ​​christening the donuts “Spudnuts”, a name that clearly sounds American, and scaling it up large. In 1940 – that same year, Dick and Mac McDonald opened the first McDonald’s restaurant – Bob and his brother Al opened the first Spudnuts store in their hometown of Salt Lake City. They fostered a healthy, community-friendly reputation by getting local boys to act as “young business people” and selling spudnuts door-to-door. On Halloween, the Peltons gave their donuts trick or treating. In an interview with The Salt Lake Tribune, local resident David Fisher recalled fondly: “We always brought a few different Halloween masks so we could go back two or three times. Spudnuts were better than a crispy chocolate bar. “

Right from the start, the brothers had ambitious plans for expansion. After starting out with a mashed potato donut, they switched to a dry mix with potato flour, which could be made in huge quantities and shipped to outlets across the country. By the 1950s, business was booming in more than 350 Spudnuts stores in the continental United States, Alaska, and Mexico. Mr. Spudnut, an anthropomorphic donut with a bow tie, served as the mascot for the budding chain that sells donuts made from “a special mixture of the finest wheat flour, powdered whole eggs, specially prepared potatoes, milk solids and other vital ingredients, all mixed together” and perfectly matched with the secret Pelton formula mixed. “

Vintage advertisements prominently featured Mr. Spudnut. Courtesy Johnny O’s Spudnuts

Other donut chains gained foothold in the 1960s. Dunkin ‘Donuts, which opened its first store in Quincy, Massachusetts, in 1950, was slated to open around 100 stores over the next decade. Meanwhile, Krispy Kreme, which was launched in Winston-Salem, North Carolina in 1937, with a yeast dough recipe that is said to include mashed potatoes, won. But no one could compete with Spudnuts in terms of donut dominance. In 1964, the company was selling a whopping 400,000 spudnuts a day. The franchise made it to Japan.

It seemed like nothing could stop the global spudnuts advance until 1968 when the Pelton brothers sold the business to National Oven Products, Inc. Three years later, the company sold it to Dakota Bake N Serve. In the 1970s, the new owner of Spudnuts got caught up in a chaotic development project that led to several charges of conspiracy and fraud. In 1979 the parent company collapsed completely, took Spudnuts with it and left franchise operators without the trademarked mix.

Although the breakup of the central organization should have ended Spudnuts, some franchisees carried on. Some decided to change their name, such as a former spudnuts shop in Illinois that now sells potato donuts under the name “Tadoughs”. But other franchisees, like a spudnut shop in Richland, Washington that has been owned by the same family since 1948, stuck to the name and improvised their own versions of spudnuts. At one point a spudnuts shop popped up as far away as Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam. In 2011, former vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin famously declared the country needed a “spudnut moment” and mistakenly believed that the donut shops were small family businesses rather than the ruined remains of a corporate juggernaut.

“The spudnut is a bit of a mystery,” says Keith Larson, founder of Johnny O’s Spudnuts. “I’ve called people who own spudnut shops and they don’t want to talk to you. There was all this big litigation. ”To name a few, Michael Patton, who bought the brand, spent considerable time in 2011 civil court suing a franchisee for using the trademarked name without permission and then defending himself against fraudulent ones Orders valued at approximately $ 1 million from a trio of Utah scammers claiming to be a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Mr. Spudnut swears Mr. Spudnut swears by “America’s finest confectionery”. Courtesy Johnny O’s Spudnuts

“I remember my business partner saying, ‘What happened to the spudnut?'” Says Larson. They located Patton in Illinois and bought the rights to the name, Mr. Spudnut, and the secret recipe that went with it. The duo opened Johnny O’s, an Americana-heavy donut shop in Utah, right where it all began.

Johnny O’s currently has two branches in Logan, Utah and Farmington, New Mexico. Like the Pelton brothers, Larson dreams of spreading spudnut shops all over the country again, partly because he believes the interest in donuts has never really waned. “I met someone last week and they said, ‘Once a year I make spudnuts for my family for Halloween.’ They have their own family recipe that uses potato flour. “

Making spudnuts from scratch is certainly a project, but it’s well worth doing whether it’s Halloween or not. The potato in the batter produces an exceptionally airy, tender crumb. The internet is full of recipes for spudnuts, potato fritters, and Mardi Gras, many of which were passed down through old family traditions. While mashed potatoes and potato flour are a common theme, the recipes range from donuts, which owe their rise to chemical leavening agents, to donuts with yeast. Some spudnuts call for butter, while old-fashioned recipes often choose to shorten it.

Johnny O's in Logan, Utah has Mr. Spudnut on its drive-through menu.Johnny O’s in Logan, Utah has Mr. Spudnut on its drive-through menu. Sam O’Brien for Gastro Obscura

“People tried to copy it,” says Larson of the original Spudnut recipe. “They’ll make their own version, but they don’t all have spices.” While the original recipe remains a well-kept secret, Larson is ready to reveal that the yeast-raised donuts contain eggs and owe some of their signature flavor to an array of spices including vanilla, nutmeg and mace.

With these starting points, I set out to create a rough approximation of the potato donuts for home cooks who were not fortunate enough to live near an official or otherwise Spudnuts outlet. Although the trademarked blend uses potato flour, sticking to mashed potatoes felt more loyal to the Germanic roots of the donut. Browning butter isn’t exactly traditional, but I found it added an impressive depth of flavor that made the warm spices pop. Ever since a 1960 newspaper stated that spudnuts “are cooked in pure vegetable fat, which makes them easy to digest,” a giant mug of Crisco has been the way to roast authentically. However, for cooks who don’t like shortening, any neutral oil with a high smoke point will work fine. The spudnut recipe below could easily serve as the basis for all kinds of flavor variations – the same newspaper clipping describes “at least 30 types, including chocolate, maple, glazed, nut, coconut, jelly, lemon, cream, twists, honey, apple, spice and others “- but it’s hard to beat the old-fashioned appeal of a humble vanilla icing.

“I was trying to bring that nostalgia back,” says Larson. “At the end of the day, it’s a really good donut.”

The recipe results in glazed donuts with an exceptionally airy, tender crumb.The recipe results in glazed donuts with an exceptionally airy, tender crumb. Diana Hubbell for Gastro Obscura


Based on a family recipe by Stephanie Dulgarian, blogger at Super Simple

Donut ingredients

3-4 Yukon Gold potatoes
2 cups whole milk (as needed)
1½ teaspoons of yeast
½ cup of warm water (approx. 110 ° F)
½ cup plus a pinch of sugar
6 tablespoons of butter
1 egg
½ teaspoon nutmeg, best freshly grated
¼ teaspoon mace
1 tablespoon of vanilla
¾ teaspoon of salt
3 ½ – 4 cups all-purpose flour plus additional flour for dusting
Rapeseed, thistle, refined peanut oil or melted shortening for deep-frying

Glaze ingredients

2 cups of powdered sugar
¼ cup of milk or as needed
pinch of salt
1 teaspoon vanilla


1. Peel and quarter the Yukon Gold potatoes, then place in a saucepan and add enough milk to cover them. Bring to a simmer and let the potatoes cook until they are completely soft. Drain, collecting ½ cup of the brewed milk.

2. Mash the potatoes and set aside. Let the potatoes and milk cool down.

3. Wipe the saucepan and add 6 tablespoons of butter over low heat. Cook, stirring regularly, until the butter smells fragrant and takes on a deep hazelnut note. Let the butter cool down.

4. While the butter is browning, let the yeast rise in the warm water with a pinch of sugar. After about 10 minutes, you should see visible bubbles appear in the mixture.

5. In a large bowl, whisk the egg, then add the mashed potatoes, yeast mixture, milk, browned butter, sugar, salt, vanilla, and spices and stir until well mixed. Gradually add enough flour to make a soft, shaggy dough. Don’t worry if the dough feels slightly sticky – it will be easier to work with after resting.

6. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap or a towel and let the dough rise for about 1½ hours. It won’t quite double in size, but it should be visibly puffy and smoother.

7. Flour a work surface generously, then place the dough on top and roll it out about an inch thick. Dust with flour when the dough sticks to the rolling pin.

8. Using a donut cutter or two concentric cookie cutters, cut the spudnuts into circles about 3 ”wide and set them on a floured work surface. Roll the dough over as needed to use up any leftovers. The recipe should make about a dozen spudnuts plus donut holes. Let the peanuts rest for 30 minutes.

9. Heat a few inches of oil in a heavy-bottomed Dutch oven to 365-375 ° F. A sugar thermometer is helpful for keeping an eye on the temperature.

10. While the oil is heating, whisk the icing ingredients in a bowl until completely smooth.

11. Prepare a baking sheet with a wire rack on top.

12. To test that the oil is ready, carefully place a small piece of batter in the Dutch oven. It should rise to the surface and start sizzling right away.

13. Fry the spudnuts in a single layer, about three or four at a time, for about a minute per side, or until they are dark golden brown. Turn with a slotted spoon. Once both sides are brown, carefully lift the spudnuts onto the prepared grid to allow them to cool slightly.

14. When the spudnuts are just cool enough to touch, soak one side in the glaze, then return to the grid and let the excess drain off. Spudnuts are best eaten warm, but the mashed potatoes will keep them moist for up to two days.

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