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  • Virginia M. Wright

The Great Maine–New Hampshire Doughnut Duel

Updated: Apr 2

And the rise and fall and rise of the potato doughnut

Bangor Daily News, April 1, 1940

As the governor of Maine from 1937 to 1941, Lewis O. Barrows balanced the budget, reinstated old-age benefits, and secured federal funding for new bridges and highways. He also successfully defended the state's place in doughnut history in a fry-off against New Hampshire Deputy Secretary of State Harry Jackson.

New Hampshire Governor Francis P. Murphy started the dispute in March 1940 when he took issue with the Maine Hotel Men’s Association’s plan to commemorate a mid-19th-century Rockport sea captain for inventing doughnuts with holes. Accounts of Hanson Crockett Gregory's feat are many and varied, but the Hotel Men had settled on the story that has the mariner fashioning his cakes into rings for more even cooking after six of his crew were swept overboard in a storm, their bellies weighted by oily, semi-raw disks. Murphy told the Hotel Men that their story was wrong; the inventor of the holey doughnut, he claimed, was Granite State lumbering-camp cook Jonathan Gray.

Barrows, a devoted doughnut-dunker who professed to being supplied with doughnuts throughout the day at the Blaine Mansion, entered the fray at the Hotel Men’s behest. “By tradition, Maine is the home of good food,” he wired Murphy, “and it is inconceivable that anything as good as a real doughnut could have been invented in New Hampshire, instead of in Maine.” Barrows concluded his missive by challenging Murphy to a fry-off.

Murphy accepted, but his busy schedule forced him to send Jackson in his stead.

A large crowd gathered to watch the contest at the Hotel Men’s convention in Bangor on March 31, 1940. Wearing white chef's toques and jackets, Barrows and Jackson met on the Bangor House stage, upon which sat two red barrels, one filled with Maine dough, the other with New Hampshire dough. In one corner stood an old-fashioned cast-iron stove and, behind it, a man with mutton-chop sideburns and a sea-captain’s uniform — Captain Gregory come back to life. Alfred L. Plante, an official with the Doughnut Corporation of American, served as emcee.

Before the frying began, Barrows stepped forward and revealed that his dough contained an unusual ingredient: potato flour. “Many of you may think this is a somewhat frivolous undertaking,” he said. “If so, let me advise you that it is just a smoke screen for something that is really serious. … As you know, Maine raises about one-sixth of all the potatoes that are raised in the United States. Very often it is a problem to dispose of many, with the result that our farmers lose hundreds of thousands of dollars. For a long time, we have been busy trying to develop new products that would utilize any surplus crops we may have.”

Many old Maine doughnut recipes contained potato flour, Barrows said, and, at his encouragement, the National Doughnut Corporation did some research and found that potato flour not only keeps doughnuts fresh longer, it makes them taste better too. What a boon it would be for Maine potato farmers, Barrows said, if the country’s doughnut-makers starting using potato flour.

Bangor Daily News sports editor Jack Moran narrated the hole-by-hole play as Barrow and Jackson mixed and shaped their batches. They handed off their doughy rings to a cook, who dropped them into a cauldron of bubbling oil, waited for them to rise and brown, and then delivered them to a jury comprised of four Mainers and one Granite Stater. The panel declared Barrows’ doughnuts to be superior; not surprisingly, the vote was 4–1 along state lines.

Just before the contest adjourned, Barrows received a telegram arrived from the chairman of the board of the Doughnut Corporation of America: "We believe your suggestion and recipe for a Maine potato doughnut excellent. Are immediately preparing formal for bakers in every state to use. Please accept our congratulations for developing a new use for Maine potatoes and a new way of keeping the name of your state before the public.‘’

Potato doughnuts, however, remained a novelty, the purview of home bakers until 2012, when Portland resident Leigh Kellis opened the Holy Donut, featuring to-die-for potato doughnuts based on an old Aroostook County recipe. They were an instant hit, and the Holy Donut now sells well over a million doughnuts a year at four shops, with a fifth to open soon.

Rockport honors its native son, doughnut-hole inventor Hanson Gregory, with the Annual Rockport Donut Festival in June.

Rockport, Maine

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