I hear that in California, people don’t eat donuts the way they do here. I don’t know if that is true, but here in the frozen north donuts are a way of life.
Legend has it that a Rockland sailor, Captain Hanson Crockett Gregory, was responsible for the invention of the modern donut, so we (collectively as New Englanders) should know our donuts.
Donut chains have flourished over the years, with Dunkin Donuts and Tim Horton’s carving up the market, but there are still a few old neighborhood shops keeping the traditions alive in this era of mass-market production. Older people in the Greater Portland area remember when local bakeries turned out dozens and dozens of fresh donuts every day. Most of them have closed, but Tony’s Donuts, in Portland’s Libbytown neighborhood has been keeping to donut tradition for a long time.
Tony Fournier opened the Bolton Street shop, just off Congress Street in 1965 after closing another bakery on Brighton Avenue, and his sons and daughters and assorted grandchildren are found behind the counter today.
Back in the day, you could find fresh donuts all over Portland. From places like Cushman’s Bakery, Nissens Bakery, Calderwood Bakery, and Country Kitchen. Fournier says to survive you had to do something different. His father used to deliver honey-dipped donuts to the Nissen drivers because Nissen didn’t make a honey-dipped donut and their sales drivers needed to offer them in order to get their bread and other products into local stores and restaurants.
Fournier, says, “We’re really the last of the hand-cut donut shops around. That makes a big difference because with a machine, the dough is more liquid and it absorbs more grease, so you get a greasier product.”
Tony’s plain donuts are a throwback, an old-fashioned New England flavor. Donuts the way they used to be. They have, “A lot of spice flavor to it.”
Keeping the product consistent is a real challenge says Rick Fournier. “You have to taste things once in a while to make sure that the flour companies are keeping up with the amount of spices, and if they’re not you have to add the spices yourself. We have one donut mix that’s private labeled so we know there’s plenty of spices in that …we blend three or four flours together to get the right consistency and things on the donut.”
Ingredients are key, but an experienced baker makes a difference too, says Fournier. “I tell them about a year (to learn). Until you get used to working in all the weather conditions inside the shop, you don't know how to make donuts yet. Heat and humidity will play havoc with your dough, because you’ve got to have the dough cold enough, but not too cold so the baking power doesn’t activate too fast on you.”
Doing the same thing in the same place for so long, Fournier has some devoted customers; “We’ve been getting people from around the country now. They come to visit and there are two places they go, one is Amato’s and the other is here.…We have a guy who comes up on Sundays from Massachusetts just to have donuts.” And if the donuts change in any way, they’ll hear from them. “They’ll write letters, they’ll call.”
Customers aren’t the only ones who make sure that Rick Fournier keeps up the forty-year traditions started by his father. “Sister, daughter, mother, niece. They’re all here keeping an eye on me.”
February 15, 2006