Sometimes, all it takes is a little cinnamon and sugar to swirl up some sweet memories
Doughnuts are everywhere these days. Shops are popping up, and where there are no shops, there are walk-up windows. Gone are the days of chocolate frosted, powdered sugar and cinnamon. Now, we’re all about glazes, crumbs, gourmet jams and jellies and bacon. They taste great, but I like to remember the simpler times.
But why would anyone write a story about a doughnut? For some people, a doughnut is more than just cake. It’s life. And death. And happy. And sad. And everything in between.
Coney Island, N.Y., 1976
I was 4 years old, and some of my best memories are from this young age. My grandfather, who I called Papa then and now, was a big part of my life. I loved spending time with him.
I lived in Coney Island in the same apartment complex with Papa until I was almost 7 years old, just about half a mile to the famous boardwalk you see on postcards and in photos. It’s also home to Nathan’s Famous, the place from where ESPN broadcasts the hot dog eating contest. While it’s the center of attention once a year, to me it’s just the place where I grew up.
Papa and I would walk to the boardwalk at least once a week. I had this fascination with numbers and elevators, so we used to sneak into apartment buildings and ride the elevators so I could watch the numbers and count. (Life spoiler alert: Somewhere in my teens, I became deathly afraid of elevators for reasons that are still unknown. More on that in a future Medium post).
Anyhow, when we took our walks, our first stop was Nathan’s. I loved the hot dogs. I loved the french fries, which Papa called french-fried potatoes (and he was right … these were and still are better than typical fries). But if we walked in the morning, we skipped those typical foods for something you wouldn’t think Nathan’s served.
And if we went at just the right time, the doughnuts were hot. You could get them either plain or with cinnamon sugar. I usually chose cinnamon sugar because — well let’s face it, what 4-year-old kid wouldn’t? The smell of freshly prepared doughnuts is one that has stayed with me to this day. And the folks at Nathan’s knew us. When they saw us crossing the street at Surf and Stillwell avenues, they got a doughnut and cup of milk ready for me. Yeah, always a cup of milk. No breakfast will ever top it, no matter how many bananas Lou Mitchell’s puts in its pancakes.
So with that cold cup of milk in my hand and a scalding hot cup of coffee in Papa’s, we’d walk along the boardwalk. We’d stop and play a game of Skeeball or 10. He took me on the rides; I was especially fond of the fire engines. It was that wonderful time when a grandfather and a grandson created memories to last a lifetime.
And they have.
Chicago, IL, 2013
Fast forward 37 years, and those memories came rushing back in a big way. It was just the other day on my way to work when that exact smell of hot dough being dusted with cinnamon and sugar hit me like a sweet truck. I actually stopped on the sidewalk, closed my eyes and took a deep breath. It was the first time I had encountered that smell with this level of intensity since I was that little boy walking on the boardwalk.
Today is Papa’s birthday.
Papa died in 1994, and this year he would have been 98. He was never a fan of gifts. If he was alive, I think he would have just wanted to take a walk on the boardwalk. I’m sure that wherever he is, he remembers those days just as I do.
Just a boy and his grandfather, walking hand-in-hand, eating donuts and enjoying life. Making sweet cinnamon-covered memories.