By Anna and Tom Burkett
It was middle of the night dark when four of us piled into the car. I’m Anna, and I last traveled with my parents last summer to Fiddle Camp and the Schoodic Peninsula in Maine. My cousin Kelsey was with us, who was with them for a visit to a bizarre sundial in Indiana, and her brother TJ who lives in New York City and isn’t surprised by much of anything. Today we were headed for southwestern Ohio and something new to all of us – the Butler County Donut Trail. My dad has an insane fondness for donuts, and this was just too good an opportunity to pass up.
If you’re not a regular donut consumer, you might wonder why were were up at such an early hour. Donuts are made in the wee hours of the morning. They’re at their best when steamy hot, and many shops sell out and close up early in the day. Indeed, the brochure for the donut trail clearly warned about this possibility. The first stop was more than two hours distant, and we thought five AM the latest we could wait and still hope to successfully complete the trail.
The night before we’d downloaded a map and our passports from the visitors’ bureau website. We’d also noted with dismay that four of the twelve shops on the trail were closed for the holidays. Running the trail was a gamble, then, because we had no guarantee that if we completed the stops we would still be able to collect our commemorative t-shirts.
To enhance our chances, TJ suggested we stop by the closed shops as well and take a selfie with the sign to show we’d been there.
The first two bakeries were closed. At each we piled out of the car and took a snap, looking longingly at the darkened kitchens behind the glass. Third on the list was Martin’s. It shone like a beacon in the dark, a converted gas station with a neon ‘OPEN’ sign. The garage bay side was now floor to ceiling glass windows opening onto the kitchen. Bags of flour and glaze lined the walls, with flour and mixers in the center. The office area was four large no-nonsense cases resplendent with donuts and a couple of coffee urns.
We talked it over in the car on the way down. We’d get three donuts at each shop, two to split between us and one to take back to those still asleep at home. We walked out with one maple bacon bar, a banana creme filled, and an apple fritter. “Oh, let’s get one of those, too,” said Kelsey, pointing to the large chocolate frosted ring. It was a mistake that would later haunt us. Cathy Mason, owner and donut purveyor, advised us to go big early when she heard we were on the donut trail. “By the end you’ll be pretty full of donuts, “she promised.
On we went, winding our way through Middletown and Trenton, Hamilton and Fairfield, stopping at the Donut King, the Donut Spot, the Donut House, and the Donut Man. We ate crullers and fried croissants, red velvet and german chocolate concoctions, classic glazed and Lucky Charms frosted. At the eighth stop, Kelsey picked out a large Buckeye donut, topped with chocolate and filled with peanut butter creme. “Be careful,” warned her brother, “that’s pretty big and you’re going to have to eat it.”
Sure enough, after everyone had had a bite or two, she was left holding half the pastry. “Ooonh, I don’t think I can eat this,” she complained. “Told you so,” said TJ as he watched her furtively throw the evidence in a trash can outside the next stop on the circuit.
Just before ten AM we pulled up to the Butler County Visitors Bureau, where the young woman on duty was delighted to award us each a t-shirt and take our picture in front of the donut trail signpost. TJ, thinking we were true pioneers, asked how long the trail had been in operation and if many people finished it. “Well,” she told us proudly, “it opened about two years ago, and so far more than eighty-six hundred people have completed it.” Seeing his deflated look, she added, “but not very many do it in a day.”
Three of the people in the car slept for the two hour ride home, deep in a donut coma.
We noticed as we passed through each inviting door that these shops opened at either three or four in the morning. By the end of our run the cases were already mostly empty, so if you want to have the best selection get up early wherever you are and look for the local donut shop. I do.
So far nothing in my taste experience has bettered Red’s in Paducah, Kentucky for the best donut in America, but I’ll continue to hunt. If you’re a hunter, too, you may find us out there somewhere in the steam and the sugar glaze, wandering the wee hours, off the beaten path.