Tuesday, 12 November 2013

Donuts (Ντόνατς)

Friday is usually souvlaki night in our house. I know that sounds very western, having a 'junk food night'; I like to refer to it in this way because it sounds very trendy, at the same time as restrictive: you can't have a souvlaki unless it's Friday. It's the end of the week, the weekly routine has worn us out, and we want something 'easy', 'cheap', 'tasty', 'able to be eaten with the fingers' (but we still sit at the table to eat it) and 'not requiring cleaning up' (and we still bring out a plate to place it on), and above all 'uplifting'. Souvlaki has all these things. It's kind of like a McDonalds happy meal, only that it contains 'real food' which is likened to junk food because it is cooked and served quickly. So when I go to pick up the kids from their sports clubs, I buy the souvlaki on the way.

"Mum, I was wondering... Can we try that new donuts place?... You said we'd try them some time... We could have donuts instead of souvlaki..." My daughter was in the car with me. She had been talking about this new donuts parlour for a while now. According to her daily descriptions of what goes on at school, kids bring these donuts with them as part of their school meals. I am not surprised to hear this: most kids eat a heap of mass-produced junk as part of their school meals every day, and I am witness to this happening when I take my kids to school and see what the other kids are carrying in their hands. My daughter is still at primary school, so she still sees lunchboxes (at high school, lunchboxes are not 'cool'). It sounds like a nightmare scenario: mass-produced donuts are going into Cretan kids' lunchboxes...

I found it difficult to say no, because I had indeed 'promised' to do this one day, and anyway, I wanted to see what the big fuss was all about with these donuts. They are made by a well-known Greek company, and a branch had opened up in Hania only about a month or so ago. I had only ever seen them once before, when my daughter was given one of these donuts by someone celebrating their birthday at her sports club. I had had a tiny little bite, and yes, I am delighted to say that they tasted quite good, and they had that donut aroma that I remembered from New Zealand, which is probably the last time I had an American-style donut. Greek bakeries do in fact sell large round donuts (which we call λουκουμά - lou-kou-MA) with a hole in the middle, and they taste OK, but they don't taste like American-style donuts. Never having been to America, I can't say I really know what an American-style donut really tastes like, but New Zealand had always followed on from the trending global food of the modern world throughout the late 20th century, so that I can probably say I have a fair idea of what an American-style donut tastes like. We were also exposed to the branded food stores very early on, which are still a novelty in places like Hania, where any item in the store tastes the same no matter where you find yourself in the world. 

Donuts are something like a snack; I didn't like the idea of replacing the souvlaki with this sweet spongy thing, which I somehow knew my husband would not be enarmoured by. Neither did I really want a donut myself at that moment. But there are some things you do for your kids, and living in the real world is very important, especially during this difficult time for Greece, as Greeks are being forced to accept that the world beyond thier borders is invading the world within their borders, at a faster pace than most Greeks can handle. I left the western world over two decades ago and embraced the idiosyncratic disconnected world of Greece because I preferred the lifestyle, but this can no longer continue. It's an anytime, anywhere world now, everywhere, and through the www, which is basically acessible to anyone, everyone knows what everyone else is doing and eating. The donuts shop is the latest food trend in town. It's an experience; for the novice, it's a bit like going to a McDonalds or a Starbucks for the first time in your life, when a new one opens in your neighbourhood. You don't necessarily go for the hamburger or the coffee - you go for the experience.

So we drive to the donuts store, park the car and enter the store. The first thing I noticed was how busy it was, with customers coming in and out. The store is only a small outlet; there is a row of freezers against the wall behind the small counter, a woman at the cash register, and a man who simply takes your order (there is a limited product range), takes the donuts out of the freezer and wraps them up for you in a little parcel (which reminded me of a packet of fish and chips) and places them in a plastic bag. Yes, the donuts - all of them - are in the freezer. Nothing is sold 'fresh', only 'fresh frozen'. The donuts are made in the company's Athens headquarters and frozen immediately, they are then transported frozen throughout the country, and customers buy frozen donuts in various sizes, falvours and packaging. So the donut is not an on-the-go snack - you buy the donut to eat it later (that's not what I recall about the donuts I ate in New Zealand)

More information on the Greek donuts company can be found on this post from my facebook site.

For me, the donut store felt like a deja vu experience. It reminded me of the late 1970s when, in my young teens, I entered the doors of a McDonalds restaurant for the first time, and ate my first McDonalds hamburger at Courtenay Place. Back then, mass-produced hamburgers and fries were regarded not so much as a global food trend, but a significant part of western culture. Having a McDonalds in your town was a sign of progress. We even ate at McDonalds as a family, as a break from routine, about twice a month. What was different back then was that there was no backlash against junk food, mass-produced food, technologically-produced food, hi-carb, hi-fat and hi-sugar food/drink. A McDonalds meal was seen as a perfect way to find something to eat when you were on the go the whole day and you didn't have time to cook. Large portions of fries and drinks were seen as 'value for money', not excess calorie agents. McDonalds was cheap and affordable, it had a dining area, and it also acted as a pick-me-up centre, somewhere you could grab a coffee, use the bathroom and continue on your way. They were not an eating experience; they carried a functional purpose.

Mega corporations and fast food chains are now being chastised for various reasons. Now that we live in a better informed and more transparent society, where companies have websites which tell you what ingredients your choice of mass- and technologically-produced, hi-carb, hi-fat, hi-sugar food/drink contains (the donuts under discussion are all made with margarine), and we hear stories every day about the dangers of mass- and technologically-produced, hi-carb, hi-fat, hi-sugar food/drink, you'd think that people would choose a healthier product over a margarine-based donut. You'd think that they'd prefer a local snack (like dakos) instead of a donut that has travelled 300 kilometres to reach the customer. You'd think that this mass-producing food operation would be snubbed over some eaterie that produces fresh food snacks.

But that isn't happening. Despite knowing what is good for us, we want what is not so good for us, adn we are all entitled to our choice. It's kind of scary seeing how people queue up to pick up junk. But that's just the company's policy: their branches only open 2-3 hours in the evening, and no time else, fooling people into believing that the queues show how popular their product is (a very clever marketing ploy). Not only that, but these donuts are cheap, so cheap (and filling, with all those fatty sugary carbs) that conceivably, you could eat them every day, especially in a crisis. 70 cents for - how many calories? Those donuts are larger than the average-sized American-style donut I remember. Dunkin Donuts seems to average them at 300 calories each, but these ones must have at least 400-500 calories... What's more, they don't taste so bad. Why eat something good for you when you can eat cheap'n'tasty junk? More importantly, this business is doing well in the crisis. It's got a winning formula. For the long-term worrier, though, it probably doesn't intend to expand beyond the Greek border (the level of English on the website is shocking, it doesn't accept online orders and it doesn't have outlets abroad), so growth stops here, I guess.

But for now, the donuts business is a sure winner. It also gives us a taste of the future - food will be cheap, full of carbs and mass-produced. This has already happened in the world, but don't forget, I am talking about Greece; we were a bit slow to catch on. Somewhere in my reading, I recall a story about how human beings were born to evolve into carb-eaters - evolution is not about chewing your food slowly, but gulping it down quickly. And in another story, I recall reading about how the human brain is actually very lazy - if it doesn't need to work hard, it won't. It seems our apathy is just a sign of human nature...

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