The busy parking lot in the Sheridan Drive plaza that Paula’s Donuts has called home for the last six years is often so packed that parking spills over to Gettysburg Avenue.
People come from all over to the Town of Tonawanda for what has become Western New York’s definitive legendary doughnut.
But don’t tell that to the people who’ve been buying doughnuts in what was Weston’s Plaza for decades. They’re happy that the best doughnut around has taken over the space that had been Weston’s Hardware since the early ’50s, but the fry cake benchmark came from another proletariat pastry provider a few doors down from where Paula’s is today.
“No doughnut has ever compared to Jet” is a refrain you’ll hear among people who grew up in what is now the shadow of Paula’s. Even when Freddie’s was the Cadillac of Buffalo doughnuts, these folks swore by Jet, which operated from the 1950s to the 1990s.
Get a few guys from the neighborhood together, and they’ll start rattling off the names they’d shout out to fill the dozen box on Sundays after church or on their way to a Cub Scout meeting. Chocolate Gems, Jelly Moons, cream sticks, peanut sticks, apple fritters, bullseye. They remember the piped-on chocolate swirls and real angel cream that no one seems to do anymore, and that Jet seemed to have donut holes before anyone else.
If there’s a hint of nostalgia for the tastes, there’s plenty of it for the price. A dozen from Jet cost 65 cents in 1963. Regular coupons in the paper would drop that price down to 33 cents a dozen. Plus, as any wide-eyed kid of the ’60s will remember, if you got a red star on the tape that was used to close the box lid down, you’d get a free dozen.
“The Greatest of All-Time” is a debate that often fills sports talk shows and Twitter feeds. It’s difficult to compare Wilt Chamberlain, Michael Jordan, and LeBron James in the world of basketball, or try to figure out what Babe Ruth would do with today’s pitching in baseball.
The good news about debating the best doughnut is, you can do it while eating doughnuts. It’s a win-win.
I love honoring those who have come before us and fortifying our future with strong elements of our past— but pure nostalgia has always seemed a bit wasteful to me. I don’t want to live in the past– I want to understand the past to make for a better tomorrow.
Anyway, like I said, I understand nostalgia better with each day that passes. It seems like it wasn’t that long ago that I felt like I remembered everything that had ever happened in my life and how it made me feel.
With those days clearly gone, when something jogs something I’d forgotten, I feel a strong urge to get my hooks into it– knowing full well that those memories are the conduits to the more simple, more vibrant, more raw emotions of youth.
All this about a box of donuts, which I saw in a 1980 ad today while I was researching something else. These cheapo donuts, in this exact red, white, and blue box from Tops, were the only ones I ever remember in our house. Plain or powder, not even chocolate ones. Simple. Inexpensive. Not all that tasty by the standards of anyone who knows better. But the best, tastiest, most wonderful Paula’s donut couldn’t come half way in competing with what seeing this box meant as a 5 or 6 year old.
For a moment today, I got a little lost in that. I thought about how not having as much then makes what I have now so much better, and how someone who had a box of Freddie’s every week could never know the excitement of a box of lousy Tops donuts every couple of months.
And there’s no way to prove it, but presented with the same Paula’s donut, right now– there’s no way yours tastes as good as mine, with all the subconscious history attached and what a special treat it has always been.
Pure nostalgia just for the sake of it is still a turn off for me, but when that fleeting high helps me better understand where I am today, I’ll take it.
At this moment, I am supposed to be writing two magazine articles which are due tomorrow.
Instead, I am daydreaming about a possible road trip that I might have to take to Youngstown, Ohio.
It’s not that I’m looking forward to eight hours in the car– it’s just that the last and only time I was in Youngstown– 22 years ago to drop a friend off at school– I had a culinary experience I’m bound to never forget.
Not long after bidding my friend adieu, as darkness began to fall on the way home, I was called by otherworldly force to a roadside donut shop.
It was just my kind of place. When the joint was new, it had to have been a palace. But 30 or 40 years later, the huge illuminated sign out front probably wasn’t as bright as it once was.
The counters were showing all the signs of the tens of thousands of dozens which had slid across to families and office workers bringing not only a cardboard box with a piece of scotch tape on the front lip— but also anticipatory smiles with each lifting of that soon-to-be untaped lid.
Places like this were why I stay off the interstates when I can. A Thruway McDonald’s only barely serves its purpose. The little spots like these can lead you to sublime distraction for the rest of your life.
I’m sure I was there primarily for the coffee– bracing for a four-hour drive in the dark. The coffee was all that could expected for evening coffee– obnoxious torrents of steam escaping with the pouring of the dense liquid which looked, smelled, and tasted a bit like used motor oil.
But on that classic wall rack behind the counter, glistening in thick sugar glaze there they were– two cherry-chip fry cakes, the taste and texture of which echo in the canyons of my mind.
Moist, dense, sweet, chemically cherry. Another few hours and these would have been “day old,” but at the moment they met my lips, they were aged to perfection.
These donuts come to mind more often than I’d like to admit, and with the possibility of visiting that part of the world almost a reality, almost with the same intensity I felt the need to pull into that shop more than two decades ago, alas, some piece of me wants to ditch all other work to dig through my travel files to find any sign of where this place was. Or spend some quality time with a search engine and terms like donut and Youngstown.
The more pragmatic side of my brain, however, knows there is work to be done. And this all happened 22 years ago. And this place could really be anywhere in Mahoning County, Ohio.
There may yet be a chance to relive that artery-clogging perfection, but it will have to wait. Unless I can convince my editor to run an ode to Ohio donuts instead of a couple business profiles.
By Steve Cichon | email@example.com | @stevebuffalo
One Year Today.
To put it in words he would have used, it’s been a year since my ol’man checked out. In fact, I’m sure I heard him start dozens, if not hundreds of sentences with, “When your ol’man checks out….”
Anyway, my dad died a year ago today. March 28, 2010. Palm Sunday 2010.
He was 58 when he died. He was very sick for most of his last few years, a combination of diabetes (which lead to a leg amputation), heart disease, and a serious case of indifference in dealing with and caring for those two conditions.
So he wasn’t always on his “A” game. He was sick a lot, and often pretty crabby. But when he was feeling good, man, he just wanted everyone to feel good. I really miss the way he could fill a room with joy, even when half the jokes were at his expense.
But for me, its all right there– I can see it, and just about feel it, but it’s just beyond my physical reach. The past year has been one of reflection upon all the great gifts my father gave this world. My heart floods with joy thinking of the very pure love that he doled out straight from the heart.
He was a thinker, and never afraid to tell anyone what he really thought about something. some of you reading this (and me writing this) may have found that out the hard way. I’m glad that I inherited the thinker trait from my ol’man, and I’m happy to have his example, to understand for myself, that sometimes its best to keep what you think to yourself.
The hardest part of the last year, are the times when I’ve forgotten he’s gone. It’s not that my full brain has doesn’t remember… It’s just that I’ll be having this little side conversation with myself, thinking about something in an almost subconscious sort of way, and it’ll lead to “I’ve gotta tell dad about this.”
That thought is only there for a fraction of a second, but it’s like a hard punch in the face. Just happened a few weeks ago, standing in the kitchen at work pouring coffee. BLAMMO.
By the way, this also happens with my diet. I’ve had Celiac Disease for 5 years. Haven’t had a doughnut in 5 years. Saturday, we drove by a Dickie’s Donuts, and my brain asked itself why I haven’t had a peanut stick in so long. Some parts of my brain have paperwork to catch up on.
Of course there’s more to write, plenty more. But the last reflection I’ll share on the last year: I now know some bit of Dad’s pain. Grandma Cichon died in 1996. Dad’s mom.
Inevitably, whenever we’d talk about grandma, which was often, we’d be smiling, but Dad’s face would turned pained. He’d sigh and say, “ooh, Mom…” or “ooh, Grandma…”
It’s the same thing I do now when I think about Dad.
In the days and weeks following his death, I wrote a brief book about my dad and our time together. There’s an e-book/pdf version at this page: