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Heath Bar Donut, Babe's Donuts - Tuscaloosa, Alabama
Tuscaloosa is not a donut town.
Co-workers always ask me where the best place to get a cake donut, or friends come to visit with the desire to have a donut with me with the belief that solely because I eat a lot of donuts, the donuts that are in my surrounding area must be the best donuts in the world, because otherwise why would I eat them on a weekly basis?
The truth is, I eat a lot of flawed donuts. More times than not, my go-to dozen is two double-chocolate, two Boston Cream, two Blueberry (or Pumpkin if in season), and the rest assorted from Dunkin, a completely serviceable and entirely average donut experience. The folks at Dunkin know me because I am there every day, going through the drive-thru to buy a Large Iced Coffee (5 Cream, 1 Shot of Sugar-Free vanilla, or a Large Iced Latte if I am feeling slightly fancy/it's Friday). It is close to my house--a right on Hargrove, a right on McFarland, a left onto Harrison, a left into the drive-thru lane. I've also expressed my love of Dunkin multiple times; it provides a comfort that is hard for even a somewhat better donut to overcome. I am also going to Dunkin ANYWAY to get a coffee, and it's easier to simply get my donuts there than ping-pong around Tuscaloosa when I know that Tasha is waiting on me to eat breakfast and watch a few episodes of whatever trashy documentary we are working our way through that particular weekend.
That being said, the donut place that I suggest most to folks from out of town is Babe's Donuts, a small shotgun store on the corner of University and Greensboro in the heart of downtown. I would not have them make the long trek down 69 to my favorite spot, Daylight Donuts (Daylight is also a pseudo-chain, Daylight is technically a flour company & it is up to each proprietor to decide which assortment they wish to offer), and Babe's Donuts is super cute: it used to be a Chicago-style hot dog place, which I loved, and for a few years it was an undergrad favorite Korean Taco place, so it has that long counter, with bags of donut flour and coffee lining either side of the waiting line, and a few random Tuscaloosa-themed decorations that were left from previous owners, notably an old Greensboro & University Street sign. I have a fondness for the building itself due to its previous iterations; the hot dog place was one of the only restaurants that was up and running the day after the Tuscaloosa tornado in 2011, my roommate Cammy & I eating a "real meal" with the lights on.
As a result of where it is and where it has been, Babe's is our "local donut place," even though this is a second location. The original is in Bryan, Texas, close to Texas A&M University. That location is owned by the same family, though their offerings, according to Facebook photos, at least, are a lot more elaborate, presumably due to Texas' robust donut culture and Tuscaloosa's lack-thereof.
This isn't to say that Babe's isn't elaborate--at least in the West Alabama sense. Their best donuts are candybar themed--Reese's, Butterfinger, and a toffee one (my personal favorite). They also do an excellent sour cream that I'd put up against anyone's--and on occasion they have them chocolate-dipped, which takes them to the absolute next level. Babe's also has a very distinct donut flavor that is vastly different than most donut places. The reasoning for this is that they fry all of their donuts in coconut oil, an interesting choice for donut frying.
I gotta be real with y'all. I don't love coconut. I love it in stews and curries, but less so in baked goods. It is a bit too intense for my liking on occasion, especially if the donuts themselves get over-fried. I've been burned (pun intended) by a bad batch one too many times, which isn't necessarily the fault of the (lovely!) folks making the donuts, it's just that when working with an oil that has a distinct flavor, it can really dominate the eating experience.
It's part of what makes a Babe's donut unique and special. Using coconut oil is absolutely not the norm when it comes to frying donuts. A lot of the high end fancy donut places tend to use a peanut oil, which is also the favored oil to make a quality french fry, as it gives the dough a little bit of flavor depth that compliments the sweetness of a typical donut. Peanut oil is super expensive, however, at least compared to most oils. Coconut oil is around the same price as peanut, but it is more versatile & takes up significantly less storage space. Furthermore, coconut oil can take a beating--it doesn't deteriorate nearly as quickly as other oils, which means that you can deep fry in it over and over without it spoiling, and lasts a long time.
However, the majority of donut places use a flavorless vegetable shortening: more often than not 100% palm oil.
Why palm oil? Palm oil, like coconut oil is naturally highly saturated, meaning that it is a solid in most room temperature situations. It is easily transportable and does not spoil. It's also super inexpensive and relatively easy to produce, though there has been some backlash due to its contribution to deforestation, as many farmers in areas where palm oil is grown (mostly Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand) utilize slash and burn techniques in order to clear out and create palm plantations due to increasing demand. In 1995, palm oil's annual production was around 15.5 million tons. By 2015, it was 62.2 million tons. Researchers anticipate our palm oil usage to reach 240 million tons a year by 2050. While this boom has a multitude of factors (palm oil is used in most home and beauty products--it has also taken over as the premiere frying oil in Asian markets, and there are incentives to keep the price of palm oil low), one of the biggest reasons for the rise in palm oil is the war on trans fats.
Let's get this out of the way: trans fats are bad! Like, really bad! When I started writing this essay, I thought to myself "surely trans fats are some sort of mid-90s moral panic, as most things were in the mid-90s," but they are legit not great! Trans fat was created by food chemists who took vegetable oils and applied extreme heat. They also added hydrogen to the oil, which reconfigured the chemical structure of the fat.
The reason for the creation of the trans fat was the actual moral panic, as environmentalists and food activists pointed toward the dangers of using full animal fats. A lot of this was attributed to Phil Sokolof, a Nebraska millionaire who made his fortune off of producing drywall. When he was 43 years old, he had a heart attack, despite never being a smoker or a drinker. He determined that fast food was to blame and became a self-described "heart health crusader," taking out full pages in the New York Times to attack McDonald's for using beef tallow to create their french fries. The backlash against McDonald's was so extreme, that they essentially switched to vegetable oils overnight in 1990: namely hydrogenated vegetable oil, aka an oil that was created by trans fats.
Of course, trans fats are significantly worse for heart health than fat or lard. The human body needs fat to function. Health advocates love to discuss the concept of "empty calories," when discussing junk food, but the truth is that our bodies are pretty magical things that can use whatever you put in them. However, trans fat is completely useless, plus it is proven to completely wreck the HDL/LDL ratio, being twice as unfavorable than saturated fat. All fat contains some small trace of "trans fat," so while it is virtually impossible to remove all trans fat from one's diet, this type of "naturally occurring trans fat" is significantly less harmful than that created in a lab. Butter, which is essentially 80% fat, 20% water, contains about 3% trans fat. One of the highest naturally occurring foods that has trans fat is actually breast milk.
To be fair to Sokolof, his crusade against beef fat continued after his successful takedown of the McDonald's french fry: he railed against "tropical" oils, such as palm and coconut, urged for an elimination of all fats from the American diet, including attempting to get 2% milk out of schools and urging children to only drink skim milk.
Which brings us back to palm oil. Palm oil has the same properties as hydrogenated vegetable oil, doesn't spoil, can be shipped as a solid, and isn't going to cause those bad cholesterol spikes. So, every company that switched to hydrogenated vegetable oil after the elimination of full fat oils in 1990, essentially made yet another switch 15 years later to palm oil; McDonald's included. Most vegetable shortenings these days have at least some palm oil in them: Crisco, for example, is made from soybean and palm, and contains zero trans fat--a far cry from its origin "Crystalized Cottonseed Oil," which was made by, you got it, combining fat with hydrogen.
This, of course, isn't to say that deep frying everything you own is super healthy--it is just slightly more healthy than what it once was. You, undoubtedly know this. Transforming a potato into french fries adds about 220 calories and about 17 grams of fat--essentially you are removing all of the water from an item and replacing it with fat, which is why fried things taste so good. It's why you should never trust a donut from a place that doesn't have a deep fryer--a baked donut will never deliver on the same level that a different baked good would.
When I go through my donut suggestions to my out of town friends, I typically follow-up--"did you wind up going to Babe's? Did you make the trek to Daylight?" to which the answer is usually "We saw a Krispy Kreme, so we went there instead! It was so good!"
I have discussed my general apathy toward the Krispy Kreme donut on here before (quick recap, if it's not an original glazed or one of the limited time variants straight off the line it's not worth eating, and part of my joy of donuts is having a variety to work my way through), but I also need to remind myself that Krispy Kremes are still very much a rarity in this world. There are only about 360 Krispy Kremes in the United States and Canada--contrary to most people's belief, Krispy Kreme's international footprint is much larger than its national one, with over 1,000 stores total. Furthermore, of the 360 Krispy Kremes in the US, not all of them are Factory Stores, Krispy Kreme's terminology for stores that produce fresh donuts on site--the true unicorn of Krispy Kreme stores. Tuscaloosa is fortunate enough to have one of these stores, so I do not blame my out-of-town friends for indulging.
Krispy Kreme, of course, has made some major headlines by being one of the first businesses to offer an incentive for receiving a COVID-19 vaccine: anyone who is willing to show their vaccination card is entitled to one free Original Glazed doughnut, no questions asked. Hilariously, as pointed out by my friend Liz, Krispy Kreme is offering unvaccinated fans of their donuts a free doughnut and medium coffee on Mondays, through the end of May, due to our obsession of "both sides-ing" literally everything in this world. Of course, this promotion caused a lot of health officials to be up in arms about providing an unhealthy reward for doing something that is regarded as healthy. All of the joy of receiving a free donut was taken away rather quickly by a deluge of fat shaming posts, and commentary on weight gain throughout a pandemic that has taken the lives of hundreds of thousands of people. Of course, as Margaret Eby points out in Food & Wine Magazine, it was never really about the donut: "How, when the most immediate threat to public health is so incredibly obvious, did we end up worrying about the "quarantine 15" and cellulite, and go back to the same place of hurtful, played out fat jokes?"
I have not partaken in this promotion. I have been fortunately & luckily fully vaccinated since mid-March and have been to Krispy Kreme only once--to get a Strawberry Original Glazed, which was not eligible for this particular offer (it was good, by the way! see! I don't HATE hate, Krispy Kreme!). But donuts have always been a perfect totem for weight gain and fatness, which, in turn, becomes a perfect mascot for unhealthiness, despite the correlation between weight and health being shaky at best.
Of all of the places I have indoors during the past fourteen months of a pandemic, (which, admittedly, has not been a lot: Publix, Target, Lowe's, Aldi, Big Lots, and the occasional food pick up), the absolute worst mask-to-no-mask ratio has been at Babe's, which, regrettably, does not have a drive-thru. Not by the staff, mind you, who kept theirs on above noses despite being perilously close to vats of coconut oil heated to 425 degrees, but by the clientele. It was such a jarring outlier that I warned Tasha about it before walking in, thinking that simply by voicing it out loud would somehow magically transform the space into a space of conscientiousness, but the warning was absolutely necessary. The day after the CDC stated that vaccinated people are able to go without masks in most situations, I went to Babe's, where myself and the staff were the only people in masks.
I'm not sure why I was so surprised, as a donut is a type of indulgence--something that we are aware of, for better or for worse, of being bad for us--an unhealthy treat that we deserve after being "good". One of the many observations about public behavior during this pandemic is that we are susceptible to the concepts of the "cheat day"--that we deserve to be rewarded after a long period of abstaining from things that are bad for us. People who have not left their house for two weeks feel permission to go out and meet friends because they have been so good about it--to be able to free themselves from these constraints for an evening or two because they have been so careful. I know this feeling well--I try my best to abstain from sugar and most carbohydrates six days a week, before eating as much sugar as possible when the weekend hits. In the same way, there were moments this past summer and fall where I wouldn't see people for three weeks, before deciding that it was safe enough for all of us to gather outside on the patio and have some BBQ and whiskey together, dragging the television outside and streaming soccer or football, or whatever event gave us all permission. A phrase I have repeated over and over this past year as I watched dozens of ill-advised "returns to normalcy" is "how can we do this incredibly unsafe thing as safely as possible," which has been a mantra of football safety advocates for decades. The answer, of course, is not to do any of it, but that is unacceptable--we still want to share drinks with friends, we want to see our students in-person and not over Zoom, we want to have our donut, or two, or three, or four despite knowing that there are still small percentages of trans fats, lurking somewhere in the science. We have weighed the perceived risks and we wish to continue.
While I have not felt judged for "wearing a mask" like many folks seem to have, I felt it most in these moments, while in line to purchase a dozen assorted; as if my donut order and my weight are what I should "really" be worrying about instead of an airborne virus that has affected and infected millions. That the donut is what is actually going to kill me. That I should know better than to eat something that is "bad" for me, that I am someone that would take advantage of the Krispy Kreme offer every single day until the end of the year, as inferred by public health experts.
I leave the donut shop with my dozen in hand--a few extra donut holes thrown in there for free. The kid picking out my donuts compliments how my mask matches my track jacket. I joke that I can't have the mask screw up the fit. I put the dozen in the front seat of my car and take off my mask--the scent of coconut taking me somewhere that isn't right here--a beach somewhere, a different country, a different year. A donut, despite the water being sucked out by the heat and replaced with fat--with "bad" things--still floats on the oil. It's how you know it's perfect.