Foraging, Canadian-style: The donut store

A couple of weeks ago I was traveling in California, and got down on the US as the Great Satan O’ Sugar. This past week I was traveling in Canada, so it’s time for equal opportunity finger-pointing. (This isn’t meant to be accusatory — just observational, but the marketing people scribbled “More zing!” in the margin of the original storyboard, so imagine CANUCKS VS YANKS — THE LARDENING in big angry red letters for the opening credits.) In my response to one comment I discussed some of the differences between Canada, the US, and the UK. (BTW, I forgot to mention that at least personally I’ve never seen so much frozen food consumption — and so many astonishingly unhealthy looking people — as in Ireland.)

While there are some important regional differences, one peculiarly Canadian icon that seems to unite the country is the donut store. In particular, this is usually a Tim Hortons, although in a pinch one can make oneself provisionally content with, say, the dishwatery offerings of a Country Style, or even a Robin’s or a Galaxy Donuts, as long as one is content to overlook finding the occasional metal screw in a cruller. (Prove me wrong on this one, people.) Nearly every small town has a donut store. Drive across the nation and witness each hamlet:  There is a government-issued liquor dispensary (operating out of a trailer if need be), a gas station, perhaps a sad-looking Chinese restaurant run by a family who is wondering how it all went wrong and wishing that dad had stopped to ask for directions to Toronto instead of driving around in circles for 29 hours eventually giving up and stopping in Upper Bearsnout, and a donut store.

In a donut store, the coffee is an important part of the ritual gathering but content-wise is immaterial. This is not a Starbucks or an equivalently effete urbanite institution. There would be no “tasting” or evaluation of top notes or acidity. Coffee comes in a can, not from any known countries or via “fair trade”; there are no discussions of whether Kopi Luwak coffee would be worth an investment. The coffee is functional, largely a holding matrix for additional fat and sugar — the traditional Canadian dish of the “double-double”. This is double cream, double sugar. And that means double. The cream is not that namby-pamby half-and-half. We are a hale and hearty lot requiring fortification for winter’s lengthy squat in the burned-out buildings of our regional climate, so we demand full-on cream with its velvety emulsified butterfat droplets awash on the tongue. The teaspoons are heaping ones, little snow-capped Rockies eroding in sped-up geological time into an oily brown sea.

In a Tim Hortons what you want are the donuts. A national outcry was raised some years ago when TH confessed to shocked consumers that it “par-baked” its donuts — marketese for “frozen then thawed” — rather than baking them fresh at each store, as it had previously done. It was as though TH had slapped everyone’s mother collectively with a big floury hand. Eventually the grumbling settled but like the Plains of Abraham, je me souviens, beeyotches.

What many folks also want at TH is the drive-through. Arguably, when it’s -38, a nice warm idling 4×4 pickup is much nicer than a chilly 15-second walk from the parking lot. But the drive-through lines fill up winter or summer. Within the store there is a bustle of activity as the TH squad efficiently dispenses the sugar pellets.

Walk into any donut store in anywhere outside of urban areas and you will find earnestly courteous middle-class and working people sneaking in for a caffeinated sugar fix as they go about their motorized errands; retirees killing time; teenagers hanging out because they can’t get into anywhere else fun; and above all, a sea of people whose insulin levels are ticking time bombs. Ever the measurement freak with a tiny bladder, I took an informal inventory of all donut stores where I stopped for a whiz in the triangle of Toronto-Ottawa-North Bay. N = about 10. (I drink a lot of water, OK?)

Observations: One can procure the barest minimum of protein either in the form of sweetened or fatty dairy, or in a thin layer of processed meats that are then enfolded within a high-GI carbohydrate shell. The “best” option for baked goods is a sweet-tasting “whole grain” bagel which I would judge to be at least 50% white flour in its composition. There may be an occasional microgram of actual fruit buried somewhere in one or two muffin types. Any other resemblance to produce is in colour only. Approximately 1/3 to 3/4 of donut store customers use the drive-throughs. By my count, approximately 85-100% of people in the average donut store in this region — staff and customers — verge on obese.

When it comes to Canadian institutions, I pronounce this one to be a hoser.