Doughnuts have long been a favorite Washington breakfast. Vendors sold the deep-fried dough in the Capitol during the 19th century, along with books, apples, and other souvenirs. Crullers cooked up debate both on and off the House Floor.
Pastries made their way into the House Chamber when a 1906 discussion about an agricultural appropriations bill devolved into a debate about dunkers. Conversation veered toward the benefit of a modern diet. “Only a few years ago they used to eat pie for breakfast and now they eat breakfast food,” said James Robert Mann, an Illinois Member, and the Chamber roared with laughter. He explained that the public had come to understand the nutritional value of cereals over confections. But New York Representative James Perkins stood up for sweets: “I would reply to the gentleman that the Pilgrim Fathers, the men who made this country great, the men who are responsible in large part for its greatness and development, ate doughnuts and pie.” “And pickles,” James Wadsworth of New York piped up, inexplicably. Mann countered that if contemporary citizens had the same lifestyle as the founders, a breakfast of doughnuts and pie would be fine, “but we do not live that kind of a life now.”
In 1911, reporting inconsistent treats at railroad restaurants across the country, the Washington Post joked that if the Interstate Commerce Commission refused to investigate, “there must be further regulatory legislation by Congress aimed at the proper supervision and control of the doughnut.” A 1933 article in the New York Times noted that some had proposed legislating the size of doughnut holes—but the reporter doubted that Congress would get around to the sinkers, given that the budget and farm relief came first.
The sinker has numerous origin stories, and versions of it were around in America’s colonial period. Many cultures around the world, including Native Americans, fried dough. Dutch settlers brought olykoeks, or “oily cakes,” to Manhattan. Handmade sweet rolls grew common around the country, and by 1830, doughnuts were seen to have a distinctly American flavor. Popularity spiked during World War I, when the Salvation Army fried them up for hungry U.S. troops in France.
Shortly after the war, cruller consumption cranked up. Adolph Levitt, a Russian immigrant and bakery owner, was credited with developing a doughnut-making machine in 1920, automating the process. Dunker sales kept a good pace during the Depression, because the high-calorie comfort food was low-cost enough that many could still afford it. As Mayflower Doughnuts, Levitt’s doughnut shop chain, grew, it kept customers interested with innovative advertising campaigns—including a congressional dunking contest.
Competitors in the 1939 tournament included New York Representatives Caroline O’Day, Hamilton Fish, and Matthew Merritt, Jennings Randolph of West Virginia, Clarence Brown of Ohio, Raymond Springer of Indiana, and Alabama Representatives Joe Starnes and John Sparkman. Mayflower Doughnuts provided lunch, piles of doughnuts, and bragging rights.
One photograph shows O’Day neatly tucking into a classic doughnut. She bit daintily, apparently taking care not to smudge her lipstick. On a plate next to her coffee is a powdered pastry, cut through with a fork. The photograph was altered by a newspaper staffer to show a dotted line leading from coffee mug to mouth, mapping the path of her dunk. Another photograph captured Fish and Randolph downing doughnuts and coffee, and clearly having a ball. Fish attempted the biggest possible mouthful, and Randolph leaned forward over his coffee as he swallowed, smiling. “‘Dunking’ Has Its Day on Capitol Hill,” the photograph was titled.
“Randolph was declared the winner for the amount of doughnuts and coffee consumed and for the fine way he handled the doughnuts without wetting his fingers,” the photo caption reported. His neat dunking skills answered the perennial challenge of how to scarf a sinker while staying spotless. The Representative’s prize was awarded in August at the New York World’s Fair, where private booths were available for guests “who like to dunk but object to being stared at,” the Seattle Daily Times reported. At the Mayflower Court of Dunking, the National Dunking Association presented Randolph with his trophy. Then the Congressman turned the tables and became a judge, evaluating the boys’ and girls’ world championship of dunking.
“In its democratic ethos, its optimism, and its assorted origins, it does seem rather quintessentially American,” author David A. Taylor wrote of the doughnut. As representatives of the country’s citizens, Members of Congress enjoyed one of their favorite foods.
Sources: Paul R. Mullins, Glazed America: A History of the Doughnut (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2008); David A. Taylor, “The History of the Doughnut,” Smithsonian Magazine (March 1998); Congressional Record, House, 59th Cong., 1st sess. (2 May 1906): 6277; Detroit Times, 4 May 1939; New York Times, 5 March 1933; Seattle Daily Times, 5 May 1939; Washington Post, 17 December 1877, 2 April 1911, and 2 August 1939.Follow @USHouseHistory