Food history: fried dough

I think I had my first fried dough as a kid at the Albany Tulip Festival, which is coming up.

Let’s find out the history of fried dough and its fried fair food siblings.

Definition: a piece of thin rolled dough, deep fried until golden brown, sprinkled with powdered sugar or covered with tomato sauce; also called fry bread, elephant ears, dough boy.

In the US, fried dough can be seen at fairs, festivals, carnivals, and amusement parks. Typically, it’s topped with a dusting of powdered sugar, but toppings can include everything from cinnamon to cheese to chocolate sauce.

Both doughnuts and funnel cake are associated with fried dough. Doughnuts and fried dough have long been associated with the Catholic faith, specifically Fat Tuesday. Consuming fried, fatty foods uses up ingredients like butter and oil, in preparation of potential diets with the start of Lent. 

Also, cooking oil and similar fats were expensive throughout much of history, and so doughnuts and similar fried foods were considered a delicacy for special occasions. 

While fried dough is basically bread dough that has been fried, funnel cakes are made from fried cake batter. The batter is poured through a funnel, deep fried, and sprinkled with sugar – just like fried dough.

So then, let’s see the breakdown of the history of fried dough:

  • 8000 to 5500BC: Early forms of fried dough were consumed in China and Egypt, after the invention of pottery allowed for primitive forms of deep-frying.
  • 1 to 100AD: The Roman scriblita was documented as a sourdough-leavened type of fried dough.
  • 600 to 700AD: The art of deep-frying was brought to Japan from China; cooking oil was very expensive and was produced in large quantities in Japan.
  • 1440s to 1530s: The Portuguese helped spread the word of fried dough across the globe when they settled first in uninhabited islands off their own coast, then later to the North and South Americas, colonizing Brazil in particular. Later still, they arrived in Hawaii.
  • 1700 to 1800: The Pennsylvania Dutch (German immigrants) brought funnel cakes to America.
  • 1800s: Fairs – and subsequently later on on, fair foods – started becoming more popular, with the first state fair in Syracuse in 1841, and later with the World’s Fair in Chicago in 1889.
  • 1809: The earliest reference to the term doughnut was made by Washington Irving, talking about the Dutch settlers and their balls of sweetened dough. 
  • 1864: Fry bread was created by Navajo Indians – a smoother, flatter version of fried dough.

Again, during the past couple of centuries fried dough in its various forms has popped up at fairs, carnivals, and the like.

I imagine it became a popular food for these events in part because of its origin as a celebratory treat; also, because it can be considered fast food, good for on-the-go fair patrons.

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