Maple Doughnuts, Unwrapped
A treat from Mill Gap, Virginia
By: Susanna Byrd, Allegheny Mountain School Alumn
If you were born and raised in Mill Gap, Virginia, you know about Maple Doughnuts. But for most of the rest of us, it will be refreshing to hear a story about doughnuts that does not end in an attack of regret or high blood sugar. When they have as rich a story as those that come from Mill Gap, doughnuts deserve a little more of our attention than the drive thru window permits. I’m willing to bet that, surrounded by affection and community as they are, the Mill Gap Doughnuts are ten times more nourishing for your health than their mainstream cousins.
Food with a story is important, as the Virginia Food Heritage Project is so ardently trying to demonstrate. What I crave is food that comes wrapped in the layers of generations, the ebb and flow of cultures, the changes of many thousands of seasons. I don’t want food that comes wrapped in only plastic. If there were a plastic wrapper on the Mill Gap doughnuts, it might display nutritional values, breaking the woven whole of the doughnut into the parcels of guilt associated with fat, sugar and carbohydrate. But a Mill Gap Doughnut is so much bigger than its parts. In its own way, it nourishes community. To find its wrapper, you have to see the places it comes from, talk to the people who make it and share some of yourself in the process.
So we’ll start in Mill Gap. Located near the intersection of Routes 84 and 600 (Little Back Creek Rd), Mill Gap is a small, rural place. It sits strategically in the low place where Rt. 84 comes through one ridge of the numerous North-South mountain chains in Highland County. There is undoubtedly an old well of community in this area, now mostly maintained by church functions and the Ruritans club. That community shows up in force every year on the first and second weekends in March to make and sell maple doughnuts in Monterey at the Highland County Maple Festival. “If your father was a Mill Gap Ruritan, you did something with doughnuts every year,” says Cappie Hull, who grew up in Mill Gap. “When we were little…the Mill Gap Ruritans decided that ‘we have fun making doughnuts down in Mill Gap. Let’s make doughnuts for the maple festival.’ And so in the very beginning, the Ruritans would sell one doughnut and a cup of coffee…”
The Highland County Maple Festival has been held every year since 1958 and now attracts thousands of visitors, who tour ‘sugar houses’ and the ‘sugar bush’ (the grove of Sugar Maple trees that are tapped to make syrup) and partake in all-you-can-eat pancake breakfasts, replete with the authentic maple syrup made all over the county. But even before the days if the festival, Mill Gap residents often came together for special occasions of their own like birthdays and holidays. At these gatherings, according to Cappie, there more often than not would be doughnuts frying:
“The people in Mill Gap…had the sleigh ride and they had a family day where generations got together and made the doughnuts, which was usually a Sunday or a weekend or a birthday or a special occasion…and as a family you made the doughnuts. And the grandma and your mom usually made the dough and the children did the hole picking…And it was an event to work together, make the product and then eat it, like a gorge.”
Donna Hooke, who grew up in Mill Gap and now owns a small food store in Monterey called ‘Evelyn’s Pantry,’ remembers her birthdays in Mill Gap:
“For my birthday…in January, we would go to my grandparent’s house and grandaddy would always…pack that hill down and he had barrels alongside the route with fires in them so you could see. And everybody from the neighborhood would come and sleigh ride at night time. And then when you got done, grandma and mom had doughnuts ready to fry and we had a big doughnut feast and hot chocolate or milk.”
And how to make these oh-so-special doughnuts? Well, you’ll have to go to the next Maple Festival (March 8-9 and 15-16) and find the Mill Gap Ruritans themselves selling doughnuts. Even then you’ll only be seeing the facade of what can be a mighty endeavor. In the first years of the festival, the Mill Gappers would set up the doughnut-making operation in the smallest house in town: “Well, back then size didn’t matter, so we went to the smallest house because they were the only people who had ties to Mill Gap. But they lived in Monterey… They had this itty bitty house, and we made doughnuts in that itty bitty house,” recalls Cappie.
Cappie was a young girl in those first years, but she remembers who did what: “The daddies came out to town and probably just sat around. They all sat there, probably 20 of them, to sell you doughnuts. But [the mommies’ and children’s] job was to produce them in that little house…The whole house, the beds, the whole house had doughnuts raisin’.” The youngest children were in charge of “pickin’ holes.” After a mother had used the doughnut cutter to shape the dough, the kids would go and pick out the centers. With maturity came the job of easing the doughnuts into the hot oil to fry. “And then we became professional glazers,” says Cappie fondly, in charge of making and applying the famous maple glaze.
So the Mill Gap doughnuts really brought the community together. And they still do; “If you don’t have your own personal business, you’re still making doughnuts [during Maple Festival],” says Donna. Cappie nods, saying that during the Maple Festival, she always helps out. “We couldn’t come to town and not feel like we had to.” I personally am glad that the community holds so strong; Now, “unwrapped”, I can taste that distinct flavor, as I sink my teeth into stories and maple sweetness all at once.