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This is how much people love doughnuts: they will wait in an epically long line that stretches outside, in Chicago, in January. They will wait with their children hanging from slings around their necks. They will submit to being shoved and jostled while juggling tiny plates piled high with doughnuts and tiny cups filled with hot coffee. They will cram eleven doughnuts (well, OK, small doughnuts or parts of doughnuts) down their throats in the span of an hour. Then they will try to find a moment to pause and reflect and determine which is the Best Donut in Chicago.
Donut Fest, in short, is not for the weak.
Eleven doughnut vendors—is there a special term for this, like "baker's dozen"?—vied for the Best Donut title. The roster did not include last year's judges' choice, Endgrain, nor did it include heavy hitters like Do-Rite Donuts, Doughnut Vault, or Old Fashioned Donuts. Here are the contestants:
1. French toast doughnut from Donut Den A pleasant yeasted doughnut with a light cinnamon flavor and maple glaze. The Donut Den is in Joliet. It is unlikely I will ever eat this doughnut again.
2. Banana doughnut from Sweet Cakes Bakery A dense cake doughnut that tasted like banana bread with a peanut butter glaze. There was also a sprinkling of mesquite-flavored sea salt, to push it toward full Elvis-inspired glory, but it added more to texture than to flavor.
3. Cherry cheese fudge paczki from the Swedish Bakery It made me imagine a meeting among the Swedish Bakery's Donut Fest cabal: "Which should we feature? A creme doughnut or a jelly doughnut?" "Aw, why not do both!" The result was a bit overwhelming, but not bad.
At this point, my plate was full. I took it as a sign that it was time to grab a cup of coffee (I think it was a Central American variety from Dark Matter, though I forget where exactly) and try to find a peaceful corner to eat doughnuts and maybe take a few pictures of the pandemonium from above. Behind where I was standing, a young woman explained to her friend that she had come to Donut Fest from her spinning class. They compared stories of their personal trainers. They did not discuss whether eating doughnuts was counterproductive to their fitness goals.
5. Half-moon glazed from Stan's Donuts Like the Swedish Bakery, it appeared the folks at Stan's had trouble deciding between a plain and a chocolate glaze. So they split the difference. It was not a bad decision, though I preferred the plain half.
6. Mini doughnut with maraschino glaze and chocolate drizzle from Glazed & Infused A little dry, but still satisfying. The woman next to me in the crowd demanded a doughnut with less chocolate. Really, what's the point?
7. Apple fritter from Lee Famous Donuts This doughnut was previously unfamous to me, but that's apparently because I don't live in Libertyville. Anyway, the fritter part was thin and sugary, which meant you could really taste the apple. I wouldn't go so far as to say it created an illusion of healthfulness, but the actual fruit was a nice touch.
Upstairs, in the DJ booth, a young woman with blonde hair was playing dance music and dancing maniacally. I was kind of in awe and wondered how many doughnuts and how much coffee she'd had. The Bow Truss Colombian coffee that I was drinking was very good, but it did not give me enough energy to dance, let alone maniacally.
8. Red velvet doughnut with cream cheese filling and lemon glaze from the Goddess & Grocer The woman behind the table was very emphatic that these doughnuts were all-natural and never frozen. Was this a competitive strategy to cast aspersions upon the freshness of her competitors' doughnuts? It was a good doughnut, though. The doughnut part was moist and cakelike (though a disturbingly bright red), the cream cheese was rich and sweet, and the glaze contained bits of lemon zest, which I greatly appreciated.
9. Tiramisu bombolini from Scafuri Bakery At this point, I was starting to reach the point of doughnut saturation. Frankly, the idea of this doughnut terrified me. I was sure it would be sweet enough to make my teeth ache. It was a pleasant surprise that it did not. But it was definitely a bakery doughnut—bakery doughnuts are smoother than doughnut-shop doughnuts. They smell like butter and powdered sugar instead of fried oil, and they taste inauthentic somehow. They remind me of when the CSO does a pop concert: the result is glorious, but there's a sense that they are just doing it to please the little people and their true interests lie elsewhere.
10. Selection of mini doughnuts from Beavers Coffee & Donuts Beavers had four varieties of mini doughnuts. They requested that Donut Fest patrons choose two. This was where I realized I had truly reached the point of doughnut saturation: I could not choose. Not because all the varieties looked equally good—it was because, after an hour of fighting crowds and a growing pain in my stomach, I just did not care. I could have taken the doughnuts or left them. But there was a line behind me, so I chose: cinnamon sugar and strawberry cheesecake. Beavers's doughnuts are not as good when they're not freshly made. But the strawberry cheesecake really did taste like cheesecake, not just sugar and oily dough.
11. Tahitian vanilla glazed doughnut from Firecakes Here I confess to my prejudices: Firecakes is my favorite doughnut shop in Chicago. Although I generally favor the old-fashioned buttermilk (or its pistachio variation when available), I have had the vanilla glazed before, and it is very, very good: light, fresh-tasting, not too sweet or saccharine. The Donut Fest sample was exactly the same as the one at the store, except smaller. In retrospect, I should have saved my sample and taken it home and consumed it later, after my doughnut fatigue had vanished, but I felt honor bound to try them all before the end of the festival.
For the second year running, the people chose West Town Bakery. I guess I support that, too, since they really tried by schlepping along chafing dishes to serve the doughnuts warm.
I tried to have some final thoughts on doughnuts. I got my last cup of coffee (Big Shoulders's Kenya Ab Chania Estate, very light and fruity and strangely good). The crowds had thinned a bit. The Firecakes crew gave away their last sample. I realized I had gotten doughnut glaze on my shirt. My head buzzed and my stomach throbbed in a disturbing way. I tried to muster some coherent thoughts. I could not. I tried to make my way toward the front door until I realized I had forgotten my coat.
Many mornings, I wake up and think how nice a doughnut would be. I seldom indulge that wish, but it's usually a pleasant fantasy, like grabbing my passport and heading to O'Hare and buying the cheapest international ticket I can find. The morning after Donut Fest, I woke up and did not long for doughnuts at all. I do not think I will be thinking yearningly of them for a good long time. Well, maybe a week or something. Maybe by next Sunday, say.