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Original Glazed Yeast Donut, Pharaoh’s Donuts – Saint Louis, Missouri
The Egyptians, admittedly, were not known for their donuts.
This is probably an unfair assessment as I am fully aware of my own palate being completely Americanized & blown into wild disproportion due to my love of sugar—it is very rare for me to find something that is “too sweet,” though not entirely impossible. But most commercially prepared baked goods or treats tend to hit a saccharine zone that I am very comfortable with and wholeheartedly enjoy. I fully admit that I don’t particularly love coffee, but I do love coffee ice cream, and therefore I drink one to two “sugar-milk” beverages a day, often disappointed if there’s a hint of depth or earthiness or any notes beyond caramel! or vanilla! or general coffee!
What are classified as Egyptian donuts are, in their origin, Arabic donuts. A recipe for zalabiyeh is found in the earliest Arabic cookbook, Kitāb al-Ṭabīkh, or “The Book of Dishes.” Scripted in the 10th Century and consisting of over 600 recipes and 132 chapters, the book was thought to be commissioned by Sayf al-Dawla as a way to preserve and educate the outside world on the Emirate of Aleppo in modern-day Syria. Aleppo during this time was home of some of the world’s great thinkers, including the father of Islamic Neoplatonism, al-Farabi, and Al-Mutanabbi, one of Islam’s most renowned poets. Al-Mutanabbi’s work is still known today, most famously for one of NASA’s favorite go-to sayings:
“If you ventured in pursuit of glory, don’t be satisfied with less than the stars.”
This is all to say that it seems as if Arabic scholars and leaders recognized the zalabiyeh as a very important cultural artifact—one that they wished to claim as their own before it began its own venture across the stars; shifting and modifying itself into whatever form one saw fit.
In June, we said goodbye to Alabama. I arrived in Tuscaloosa on an August morning in 2005—my father and I leaving New Jersey in my 1995 Ford Explorer and making the 16+ hour trip south. Our plan was to stop halfway in our journey to help break up the trip into manageable bites, but when we arrived in Chattanooga, there were zero hotels. We continued to drive a bit further south in hopes of finding some vacancy but was still unable to find a place to rest our crazed & weary heads. It wasn’t until we made it to Fort Payne, Alabama where in a gas station we saw a headline from a local newspaper that let us know that we were driving the exact route of “The World’s Longest Yard Sale,” which spans from Addison, Michigan to Gadsden, Alabama. We eventually crashed at a Birmingham Airport Hotel, approximately 50 miles from Tuscaloosa.
I learned a valuable lesson that day, and that lesson was “book the hotels well in advance if you are taking a road trip”.
And so when it came time to make the very different 16+ hour road trip out of Alabama, I scoured the internet for hotels (to be fair, booking a hotel is much easier now that we’ve now optimized and destroyed the wild west of the Internet) to track down a spot that was not only close to half-way between Tuscaloosa and Saint Paul, but also a dog friendly spot, as I was carrying the most precious cargo in my Hyundai Tucson: our eight-year-old retired racing greyhound, Summer.
While the Egyptians were not known for their donuts, they were known for their greyhounds.
Evidence of the breed has been found in both Mesopotamia and Egypt, with drawn images of greyhounds found in tombs as early as 4250 B.C. The greyhound was not only revered for its ability to hunt and for its companionship while its master was alive, but it often seen as an intermediary between worlds who would act as a guide from the living realm to the afterlife. The most famous instance of this is the Egyptian God Anubis—typically depicted as a canine or a man with a canine head. While scholars are at odds over which breed of dog is represented (including some claiming it is actually a jackal, although most claim that the words jackal and dog were used interchangeably), the long snoot coupled with ears at attention definitely make a case for it being a 45 mile-per-hour couch potato. Even more clear in this greyhound-as-otherworldly-shepherd case is that greyhounds were commonly found mummified alongside their masters; for both companionship and for guidance into strange and potentially heavenly lands.
And so, myself, my bourbon collection, my buddy Austin, and my not-a-great-guardian-but-dietyesque-diva-dog pointed the car north toward St. Louis, Missouri to complete the first leg of our cross-country tour to the new northlands. The drive, thankfully, was unremarkable—we lucked out on literally every aspect of the drive, including traffic and weather, and made relatively good time in getting through the Mississippi, Tennessee, and Missouri borders.
For those of you who have traveled with pets (especially those who have dogs that are 40+ pounds), you typically have two options when it comes to hotels: a terrible fleabag motel with a faded RC Cola vending machine outside, or high end posh ridiculous hotels that treat pets better than their owners. And, for those of you who know me, I went with the high end luxury hotel, not only because it is in my blood—I am the son of a Marriott Titanium Elite member, after all—but because when you move cross country, all money is temporarily imaginary until those credit card statements arrive. Typically these higher end pet-friendly luxury hotels are located closer to center-city, and this was no exception; a beautiful old-school hotel with a tiny dog park with artificial turf fitting of a Great Royal Wife.
This hotel was also within walking distance of two great American pillars—one being the Gateway Arch, a steadfast vaguely brutalist monument to Westward Expansion. I legitimately didn’t expect myself to be awed by the Gateway Arch, but awed I was—it is so impressively huge that is causes your brain to malfunction. It carries a very odd Space Odyssey energy to it—as if all that sparkling stainless steel is somehow alive and came forth from the ground itself, fully realized. Of course, if this were the case, the arch would extend into the earth, and, as above, so below: a metal oblong ring in the shape of a donut whose dough was too thin and thus expanded into a wide, thin circle.
The other pillar, of course, was Pharaoh’s Donuts. Despite our perception of a pillar as being a permanent fixture that upholds all around it—a monument—Pharaoh’s Donuts is an institution that has had every opportunity to vanish in the sands of time but still manages to persevere. Founded in 1994 by Amon Aziz, the bakery did not have a stand-alone location for most of its existence, instead sending out glazed twists and chocolate-iced long johns to various gas stations and corner stores across Missouri.
There is something oddly beautiful about things that can only be obtained through other mediums—the concept of the B2B2C model seems so sterile, but in practice, it’s kind of lovely. With the massive flattening of the market as the result of (surprise!) ever-growing capitalism, it is always a joy when you walk into a gas station that has some strange little stand from a local delicacy. In my trips across Alabama, this often came in the form of various nuts and pralines—though every once in a while, you could stumble across a random non-FDA approved piece of pound cake wrapped up in plastic. During an ice storm in Tuscaloosa, I once walked to the gas station to get my Saturday donuts as it was the only place that remained open. Desperate for something, I purchased the pre-packaged Krispy Kreme donuts & was horrified by how terrible they were—too sweet, too dry, almost grating to even chew. I threw them out, lamenting the fact that at some point this particular gas station could’ve had something sensational and baked especially for it—an Amon & his daughter loading up his box truck and bringing a tray-full of custard-filled donuts to a small glass case.
So it is fitting that on my walk to the brick and mortar space of Pharaoh’s Donuts, I accidentally go to the old location, which happened to be the coordinates listed in Google Maps. Fortunately, while downtown Saint Louis is completely empty on a Tuesday morning before 7am, the only other people in the area were also on their way to Pharaoh’s, and so I ran into someone who asked “hey, are you looking for the donut shop?” before the two of us managed to track down the unmarked building together after noticing Amon’s trusty box truck parked out front.
According to the small amount of information found on the Internet, Pharaoh’s Donuts has changed locations at least four times since 2017, had a “new” location in 2014, and closed a location in 2012. Even this downtown location seemed very much like a pop-up—no seating, just a massive fryer with huge silver racks and trays of donuts with a modest see-through case in the front of the store. Everything about the whole process screamed “grab-and-go,” down to the ordering process. I consider myself a donut-ordering expert: I know exactly how many donuts I have left in my order. I can rapid-fire list and point out what I want. But I was legit thrown off to the point where I simply asked for a box of assorted donuts—to let fate, or the gods, or a tired Missouri teenager decide. Maybe this was because I was leaving the only home I knew for eighteen years. Maybe this was because I had been in the car for eight hours and had another nine hours to make it to an VRBO we were staying in before we officially closed on the house. Maybe it was a lot of things.
How can one be deliberate in transition? As Egyptian royalty prepared themselves for the after-life, they brought everything that they could with them: King Tut famously was buried with over 5,000 objects, including board games, daggers, 140 pieces of underwear, wine, and various loaves of bread. Ramessess II’s tomb had what appeared to be a recipe for honey cakes—as if ascending to a different realm would mean the loss of baking memory. When scholars recognized the zalabiyeh as important, did they know that they were giving a gift to the ages to do with it what it will? That it would be dipped in powdered sugar, or honey, or whatever it is brings eternal life in a space that they could not have any knowledge of?
Every gateway leads to another gateway.
And so, into the known unknown. We bring the things we love, but also the things we need—and while I am sure there is a difference between these two categories, I only have time for the things I love. There is Summer, asleep in the back seat. There is my prized bourbon collection—a new meaning to the word spirits. There is my earthly driving companion, Austin. My wife and son are waiting for me, and while I believe that life is in its essence a series of transitions and that we arrive with nothing and leave with nothing, there are some things that are just too valuable to be borrowed in this life and stay with us until the next, and the next, and the next. Nothing belongs to us, but it is ours, yes? It has to be. It has to be. What is it to pursue the stars if you can’t hold one in your arms?
We leave Saint Louis, Gateway to the infinite, Gateway to the Gateway to the Gateway, with a dozen assorted donuts. The Pharaoh’s secret is that they knew that donuts are meant to be eaten while on the road—on long drives through Iowa cornfields, or in short commutes to the job site. One hand on the wheel while the other one is caked in chocolate glaze as flecks of icing fall in the cupholders. I do not know what awaits me on the other side, after the reconciliation, but I know what I carry with me. I have chosen my guides and I have chosen so well.
Thanks for joining me on Substack & being a part of a different type of transition! I am hoping to be a little bit more consistent with my donut missives as I explore everything the Twin Cities has to offer. Thanks for being here with me.