Rendering doughnuts from root vegetables might seem like an unappetizing prospect. But in 1939, brothers Al and Bob Pelton, bored with baking and French frying white potatoes, developed a sweet doughnut made from a mashed-potato base. The Peltons initially peeled each tuber by hand, but in the interest of increasing doughnut yields (and decreasing thumb lacerations) they developed a potato-flour mix which could be used as a starter for doughnut dough. Before long, the brothers had franchised more than 200 Spudnut shops around the country.
Classic doughnut shops—much like burger stands and soda fountains—are either being run out by chains or reinvented as kitsch, and after a series of vague corporate dealings, the Spudnuts franchise has dwindled to less than 40 locations. But the remaining shops are deeply loved, and many still serve a respectable version of the Peltons’ original soft, moist and slightly potato-flavored rings—which, when made right, are so light they barely require chewing.
In Charlottesville, Va., the Spudnuts doughnut challenges Thomas Jefferson as the town’s most renowned icon. Since opening there in 1969, the shop has been the subject of two documentaries and has witnessed the local opening and closing of both Dunkin’ Donuts and Krispy Kreme. The Spudnuts in Richland, Wash., has been frying potato doughnuts since 1948, when Barlow Ghirardo and his brother-in-law, Jerry Bell, shelled out $50 in exchange for naming rights and 100 sacks of the Peltons’ mix. The shop is now run by Ghirardo’s daughter, Valerie Driver, who keeps the hours of a cave bat and attributes her shop’s popularity to small-town charm and the fact that potatoes just make better doughnuts.
“We’re an honest, family-run business and make every doughnut by hand,” says Driver, who’s not particularly impressed with the current state of franchised doughnuts. “Krispy Kreme’s might be fresh when that light of theirs is on. But the light’s usually off.”
Ensuring that this curious slice of Americana is preserved, Purdue University professor Kathryn Sherony operates a Spudnuts Museum out of her home in Lafayette, Ind. “People have love affairs with Spudnuts,” Sherony says. The Musuem’s motto neatly summarizes the Spudnut allure: “An American original, loved by many but understood by few.”