The Donut: A Canadian History.


256 pages
Contains Photos, Illustrations, Bibliography, Index
ISBN 978-0-8020-9545-9
DDC 306.30971'09045




Reviewed by Steve Pitt

Steve Pitt is a Toronto-based freelance writer and an award-winning journalist. He has written many young adult and children's books, including Day of the Flying Fox: The True Story of World War II Pilot Charley Fox.


There is something Zenlike in the subject of this book, only instead of contemplating our navels Steve Penfold wants us to contemplate the donut. Every day, millions of donuts are purchased and consumed by Canadians. Few people stop to think about the origin of this humble treat and its impact on our day-to-day life. Nor do most people consider how Canadians have made and sold donuts over the past century.


This book by Steve Penfold started as a PhD thesis at York University. Some unenlightened people might curl a sneering lip at the thought of a graduate student spending so much energy and time researching what appears to be a very un-extraordinary subject. Penfold disagrees. In his introduction he writes, “The donut reminds us that banal things have considerable analytic power. In this small product—in the technologies that produced it, the places that sold it, and the consumers who ate it—several economic, social, cultural, and political narratives converge.” As a result, this book is much more than just a cursory glance Canada’s love affair with deep-fried dough. It is a serious look at the cultural forces over the past century that took donuts out of grandma’s country kitchen to make them the keystone product of huge multinational corporations.


Strangely, Penfold rarely talks about donuts as a food. For the most part, he examines donuts and society from the business point of view. He explores the numerous cultural shifts that started with small-time bakers producing a few dozen donuts a day as a sideline and ended with massive factories turning out thousands of donuts to be sold nationwide in franchise restaurants and supermarkets. Along with the donut stores, Canadians changed their eating habits. At the beginning of the 20th century, the average Canadian rarely ate a meal away from home. Now most of us do it several times a week. The mass-produced donut is not the cause of that trend, it is the result of it.


Although this book is not aiming for the nostalgia bone, the text will trigger many “Oh, yeah! I remember those!” moments in certain readers. Many people will remember the donut eating contests when new franchises opened or watching flotillas of frying dough bob their way down rivers of hot oil from automated donut making machines at country fairs. In a chapter called “Eddie Shack Was No Tim Horton,” Penfold explains why one popular hockey player’s donut franchise failed while his teammate’s donut empire flourished and became a national icon.


Dozens of period photos, advertising posters, and business charts are included to support the text, and endnotes and an index are included at the back. This book is a highly informative and thought-provoking read for anyone interested in studying business history or modern Canadian society.


Penfold, Steve., “The Donut: A Canadian History.,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed April 17, 2024,