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Commentary: Buffalo's Donut Obsession

By Tim Bienkowski

Buffalo, NY – Western New York has a reputation for having a hearty and resilient population capable of surviving severe blizzards, a shrinking economy, frequent jokes by late night comedians, and recurring nightmares of footballs drifting "wide right." Outsiders must wonder how we've developed this thick skin. Is it our genes, our ethnic heritage, or our diet? I have a theory.

Our post-industrial town is well known for pizza, chicken wings, and beef-on-weck - favorites of both beer-gulping, Buffalo Bills-rooting proletariats, and button-down Lexus-driving residents of suburban sprawl. But one Western New York staple is available in almost every store imaginable, as well as in its own specialty shops. I am talking of the humble, but never more popular donut. On a recent drive from Niagara Falls to Amherst, I passed eight Tim Horton Donut stores, the local category killer of this lard-laden confection. On the same route, I also noted six Wilson Farm stores hawking their most recognizable brand name product, the mighty up-and-coming challenger, Krispy Kreme Doughnuts.

Some cities are heavily sprinkled with frozen-yogurt franchises, others flowing with gourmet coffee shops; In Buffalo, donuts are the cash crop. They appear to outsell bagels, muffins, cookies, cupcakes, and every other sugar product known to man. Especially popular in winter, in never-ending coffee-and-donut specials - gas stations, hotels, bowling alleys and convenient stores tempt us with this sweetest of sweets.

Coming in all varieties, from simple glazed, to cr me-filled, to nut encrusted, and all varieties of chocolate, donuts are available on literally almost every corner. Their smell is more recognizable to local residents than apple pie or blueberry muffins. Donut shops are in some cases 24-hour operations for the insatiable. After all, you can run out of gasoline in the middle of the night, but not donuts.

In a city not known for counting calories, until it is too late, donuts seem like the ultimate comfort food. Try to find a quicker pick-me-up after snow shoveling your driveway, or watching a Buffalo Bills loss. Enjoy a donut at the gym to energize your workout, or afterward to raise your blood sugar, a donut to wake you in the morning or one to put you to sleep at night.

You can even plan your donut feasts online now. That's right, both Tim Hortons and Krispy Kreme have glitzy web sites with mouth-watering images of new products, complete menus, store events, and even nutritional information. One can browse the fat content of donut varieties, which according to the Tim Horton site, range from eight grams for a Boston cr me to twenty-two grams for a chocolate glaze.

John Belushi immortalized the image of donuts in his Saturday Night Live impression of a Bruce Jenner commercial endorsing "Little Chocolate Donuts, Breakfast of Champions." The image of an overweight man doing Herculean athletic feats is one that gives us both chuckles and perhaps a subconscious approval for eating whatever we like.

So what does the future hold? Perhaps industry sponsored studies of the benefits of donut consumption. After all, alcohol, coffee, dairy, and beef all have their lobbies and "health studies." Why not donuts? Perhaps they will be "proven" to prevent birth defects, raise good-cholesterol or possess Viagra-like powers.

In the 1967 movie, "The Graduate," a young Dustin Hoffman is told he should consider his career future "in plastics." If Buffalo is representative of household trends in America (in fact, it is considered a test market for many national products), then our future may well lie with a small ring-shaped cake made of light dough that is fried in deep fat.

Listener-Commentator Tim Bienkowski is a local writer who frequently appears at local poetry readings.