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Dance of the Donuts

By John CoxPublished about a month ago Updated about a month ago 7 min read
Top Story - January 2024
15
The sign outside Hans' Bakery in Anoka MN

It happens sometimes that silence speaks with greater profundity than language, inarticulate emotion arising in response to form and movement, its figurative essence an alien and forgotten tongue of old. As a much younger man I felt it in the sweeping gesture of my arms as they sliced through the air surrounding me; I felt it in the balls of my feet as they balanced and turned on the tiled flooring beneath them; I felt it in the complete absence of guiding thoughts, each motion as routine and instinctual as breathing.

Forgotten passions sometimes reawaken these memories in my joints and lift the hairs on the nape of my neck. With a remembered thrust or downward slash, brief images flicker at the peripheries of imagination like memories born of motion rather than flesh, the sound of a familiar voice echoing in my thoughts.

“The donuts are ready.”

I used my first real job at Hans' Bakery to pay my tuition for college and as our prime source of income during the first three years of our marriage before I joined the U.S. Army.

The final task at the end of each day for me was frying the raised donuts. When the first batch of the donuts were ready for frying, typically between 5 and 5:30 am, I would move to the steam cabinet where we proofed them to smoothly withdraw the first screen. Lowering it slowly into the hot oil, the donuts would bob on the hissing surface as the heavy screen sank to the fryer’s bottom, their edges already beginning to glow with color as the expanding gases within rapidly doubled them in size.

A mishandled screen would splash the hot grease leaving a painful burning welt, but after three years of frying them, I never burned myself again. The flying arc of the donut screen passing from the steam cabinet to the fryer was repeated thousands of times over the years I worked there, the motion transitioning in time from a workmanlike dance to soaring kata.

But freeing the screen from the steam cabinet was a gentle and deliberate act, once released, the precious moments lost in its removal were regained in the gliding steps between the cabinet and the fryer before the action returned to half speed as I lowered the donuts into the super-heated oil.

If I jerked the screen from the cabinet the donuts collapsed. Carelessly dropping it into the hot oil and the splashing grease delivered excruciating burns. But if the donuts were not moved rapidly between the two the precious seconds lost with each screen led to bloated donuts at the end of the fry cycle – clouted and ruined by grease. Even the routine and mundane act of frying donuts was infused with the beauty of repetitive, ritualized motion, every rapid or deliberate movement of hand or foot all a part of a greater goal – the endless quest for perfection.

With the first screen submerged I would wait for the moment when the donuts turned a mouthwatering gold before pressing deftly on the outward edges of the first two donuts with the turning sticks and moving rapidly down one row and up another, the oil lapping the edges of the fryer as donut pairs in unison flipped, their glistening bottoms bobbing above the hot oil.

Once they were turned, I beat a random rhythm on the fryer’s edge with the sticks as I waited a second time before the two-hour dance of the donuts truly began, ending only once the final screen was withdrawn from the oil and the gas flames beneath the vat were extinguished.

After lifting a screen of finished donuts from the fryer I would set it on the rack at my left to dry. Gliding one, two, three steps, to the cabinet, I'd grasp the handles of the next and slowly draw it out before sailing it through the air, my feet simultaneously turning and stepping twice before abruptly slowing to lower the screen into the waiting oil.

Two quick side steps to my left and my hands began flipping hot donut pairs in the vat of glaze until twenty-four donuts shimmered with sugary sweetness on the screen and I turned one step, two, my sticks renewing their rapid tempo across a new set of golden faces.

On and on the dance continued, glaze twenty-four, flip forty-eight, glaze twenty-four more, glide to the steam cabinet and soar back, hard earned wisdom accumulated not through words, ideals, or theoretical constructs, but via actions once upon a time initiated and maintained by conscious thought – eventually executed in trancelike synchronization.

When Ricky finished cutting donuts he would ask me - “You want a hand with the chocolate iced and sugared donuts?” and set a bowl of heated chocolate next to a bowl of sugar.

We usually worked silently, not so much concentrating on the task as abandoning ourselves to the art of repetitive motions, the movement of hands and feet no more or no less than the appointed task required, lightly tossing donut pairs in the granulated sugar or dipping them jointly in the chocolate icing, the rapid flicking of our hands masking the gentleness and respect preserving the integrity and appearance of each and every one.

Raised donuts are remarkably fragile prior to cooling, rough hands concerned only with completing the task as quickly as possible will tear or otherwise injure their delicate surfaces. Those who remain long enough to truly master this art stay for the love of creating something worthy of contemplation by all of the senses, not merely taste alone.

Before preparing the donuts, we would shape the bread loaves, fancy dinner rolls, and Danish so fragile and tender they fell apart in your hands and melted in your mouth. At four in the morning when Hans began to pull the first bread pans from the oven, the powerful scent would overtake our senses like a happy dream.

I worked seven years as a baker, twenty-two years in the military and spent the last nineteen years in the financial services industry. Each one generated its own rewards and satisfaction, but nothing ever equaled the pleasure of pausing after removing my apron at nine in the morning to look at the goods we had produced during that nine-hour shift. I estimated that I fried roughly one million glazed raised donuts over the six years I prepared them, never mind the long-Johns, Bismarks, cinnamon twists, donut holes and apple fritters. At the end of each and every fry cycle, I ate a single raised glazed donut. I never tired of them. The raised glazed is still my favorite decades later.

My old boss Hans immigrated from Germany on May 22, 1956, the day I was born. The only English word he knew when he arrived in country was thank you. But he was a skilled baker and soon found work in a Minneapolis bakery. He opened Hans' Bakery in Anoka in 1973 and I started work for him in 1974 as a freshman at the University of Minnesota. Hans was an artisan and a consummate professional. He took enormous pride in the quality of his bake goods and his bakery was immensely popular for all the years he ran it.

But I gained much more than a job working for him. I gained a skill set. Because of the persistence of muscle memory, I can still tell when a dough is ready for rolling or shaping with a touch of my hand. For the past forty-plus years I have baked only for pleasure.

In 1998, Hans died of lung cancer when I was serving my final assignment in the army. My mother mailed me the obituary and I wept as I read it. He was like a second father to me.

Hans' Bakery later closed in 2010 before it was reopened by new owner Kellie Olsen in 2016. She had fond memories of going to Hans’ for treats as a child and wanted to bring that experience back to the Anoka community. Turns out the citizens of Anoka were hoping for the same.

The picture below is Hans' Beehive coffee cake. It is a traditional German coffee cake - bienenstich kuchen - its actual translation bee sting cake. Hans softened the translation to beehive since he used rum flavoring in the custard and whipped cream filling rather than the real thing. It was his best-selling coffee cake. None of the other bakeries in the Minneapolis area sold it when I worked there. It's not a secret anymore since you can find lots of recipes for it online.

Hans Beehive Coffee Cake

When we lived in Germany, I often would treat myself to a slice of bienenstich from the local Bäckerei. In Germany they use rum rather than flavoring. Yum!

Bon Appetit!

cuisine
15

About the Creator

John Cox

Family man, grandfather, retired soldier and story teller with an edge.

Reader insights

Outstanding

Excellent work. Looking forward to reading more!

Top insights

  1. Excellent storytelling

    Original narrative & well developed characters

  2. Expert insights and opinions

    Arguments were carefully researched and presented

  3. Eye opening

    Niche topic & fresh perspectives

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Comments (12)

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  • L.C. Schäfer20 days ago

    You bring the memories to life, I can see you working in the bakery, moving and frying and glazing and flipping.... 😁

  • Andrea Corwin about a month ago

    What a great story! I can see why it got TS. and wow: "I fried roughly one million glazed raised donuts over the six years I prepared them, never mind the long-Johns, Bismarks, cinnamon twists, donut holes and apple fritters." I would love to be sitting in your kitchen enjoy the baking smells - but more the results!

  • Morgana Millerabout a month ago

    " the motion transitioning in time from a workmanlike dance to soaring kata." This line contains an entire donut-maker's mastery montage within it! You made baking donuts feel nostalgic to me, even though I have never done it—You took me to that trance state attained by getting "in the zone" doing something physically familiar. Reading this really made me smile, and you have a wonderfully descriptive and mellifluous writer's voice!

  • Lacy Loar-Gruenlerabout a month ago

    John, what a wonderful, engaging story! I love how you turned 'silence' and 'forgotten passions' into "The donuts are ready." Congrats on Top Story, it's well-deserved!

  • Dharrsheena Raja Segarranabout a month ago

    Whoaaa, never knew that there could be so much more than meets the eye when it came to donuts! So sad that Hans passed away due to cancer. Kellie Olsen is sooooo nice to reopen the bakery! That beehive cake looks soooo good! 😍😍😍😍😍 Congratulations on your Top Story!

  • Naveed about a month ago

    Marvelous work! Keep it going—congrats!

  • Rachel Deemingabout a month ago

    You were an artisan. I love it when you've done things so often that you just know. That, to me, is priceless but it only comes through repetition and patience and I wonder how well equipped we are now to practice that.

  • Anna about a month ago

    Well done!

  • Suze Kayabout a month ago

    Beautiful story. I’m a pastry chef, and I totally know what it feels like to lost yourself in the rhythm of the ritual. Thank you so much for helping me see the beauty in my craft again - I had a tough night struggling with a recipe, and this put back a little pep in my step! And also - those grease burns. Yeowch!

  • Thank you for taking us with you through this, a wonderful story

  • Hannah Mooreabout a month ago

    I'm reminded of the reverence given to tea ceremonies. I can almost feel your muscles twitching to play this out as you write it.

  • Naveed about a month ago

    Super!!!

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