In this city, it’s rare when a business remains on the same corner for decades. But people’s love of fried dough products remains constant. Winchell’s Donuts was a popular after-school snack spot for St. Brigid’s students—especially for those of us who played sports after school in the gym beneath the church. Some kids even got to start their day with hot, sugary goodness, but my mom was very health food-conscious and would have sooner voted Republican than let me have a donut for breakfast.
Growing up, I rebelled against my mom’s healthy habits when I had access to mood-altering sugary substances. My mom didn’t forbid me from having occasional treats but highly-processed junk food was never stocked in our house. When I visited my aunt and cousin, I gorged on sugared cereal, knowing it was verboten. Other students brought coveted single-wrapped Hostess products with their lunch, while I had whole-wheat raisin bread with unsalted peanut butter.
Once I gained some financial independence with my allowance, I often turned to sugar as comfort food, sometimes bingeing on it. I often stayed at my grandparents a couple of blocks away from the donut shop. One Saturday afternoon when I was about 12, I headed up there, cash in hand, and bought a dozen donuts. I took the box back to my room and devoured half of them in one sitting. I hid the box in my closet and ate the rest over the course of the day. I made myself sick, but unlike the tequila effect, where you never indulge again, the presence of the right kind of donut in our break room at work still inspires a Pavlovian response to grab and devour.
Winchell’s was also where I had my first date—a shift from pre-teen sugar binges to other kinds of sensory experimentation. My date was with Chris, the bass player for DEATH TRAP, my classmate’s band who played a gig in our gym. Our first date consisted of us getting donuts (a cake donut with chocolate sprinkles for me, most likely), sitting at one of the tables with the mustard-yellow plastic chairs for a while, and then walking around aimlessly. Eventually Chris walked me home so that my mom could meet him. Many parents would have automatically bristled at the sight of their daughter with a long-haired guy sporting a metal t-shirt and denim jacket with band names scrawled on the back. But my mom was always drawn to people who stood outside the norms and took a liking to him right away. As she got to know him more, his quick wit, intelligence, and humor won her over as much as they had me.
After I graduated from St. Brigid’s, the donut shop wasn’t a hub of social activity for me. But since I was always taking busses up and down Van Ness, it was one of my neighborhood landmarks. At some point in the late 80s, Winchell’s pulled up stakes and moved out of San Francisco, but an independent donut dealer came in and converted the spot to “Happy Donut,” which is still in business today. I guess that the continuing presence of St. Brigid’s students and the Academy of Art athletes using our old gym help them survive in the city’s boutique donut snob economy. Keep on frying, Happy Donut!