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Daniel Neman: In my hour of darkness, give me doughnuts

Daniel Neman: In my hour of darkness, give me doughnuts

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A selection of doughnuts from Pharaoh's Donuts, photographed in 2018..

A selection of doughnuts from Pharaoh's Donuts, photographed in 2018. (Gabe Hartwig/St. Louis Post-Dispatch/TNS)

ST. LOUIS — My soul was dark and bleak, blackness tinged with gray.

Relentless waves of despair crashed heavily over me. Menacing, oppressive clouds hung low and merciless in the sky.

It also happened to be my birthday, which was probably not a coincidence. Another year older and closer to death. Comes the blind Fury with th’ abhorred shears, and all that. It is the blight man was born for.

One thing alone could raise my spirits. Only one elixir could work its magic and restore me to the island of the living.

Doughnuts, as I have said before, are Nature’s perfect food. There is nothing else in the world that approaches the purity of taste, the sublime texture and indeed the healing powers of a bit of sweetened dough fried golden in oil.

By a marvelous stroke of good fortune, St. Louis happens to be the best doughnut town in the country, and maybe the world. In Los Angeles, there is a doughnut store on every corner, but the best of theirs does not even approach the worst doughnut here.

Even before I had felt so low, I was planning to get doughnuts for my birthday. I was looking forward to it. The last doughnuts I’d had were exactly one year ago, when I treated myself to a couple for my last birthday. I was ready for them now.

I don’t live near Florissant, Missouri. But someone I had recently interviewed, who is also a doughnut connoisseur, said her favorites are to be found in Florissant. That reminded me that I’d had doughnuts from Florissant on previous occasions when colleagues had brought them into the office for one celebration or another, and that I had indeed found them to be exceptional.

So I decided to make the half-hour drive to Florissant, through the spitting rain, just to buy two doughnuts. And then, of course, there was a half-hour drive back.

I chose an apple fritter — it was so large I expected them to use a winch to take it out of the case — and a custard-filled, chocolate-frosted doughnut. I almost skipped to my car in giddy anticipation.

I ate half of each even before I turned on the ignition. The other halves did not last much longer, though I tried to extend the pleasure of eating them as long as I could.

I did not consciously feel the change, but all of a sudden I realized I was happy. I was so happy. My entire outlook on life and the future had changed in just a few bites. A few bites and, let’s face it, probably 800 calories.

And that got me thinking. Doughnuts are my happy food, they cheer me when I am down. What foods, I wondered, do other people count on to make themselves feel better?

I put the question out to the internet, and the responses came flooding in.

Comfort foods ranked high, with calls for mashed potatoes, homemade cornbread (and homemade cornbread stuffing) and chicken and dumplings.

But I was surprised to see so many people choose ethnic foods, especially when their names do not immediately place them as members of that ethnic group. The Vietnamese soup pho received several mentions, and tacos were cited even more (street tacos “make me soooo happy,” wrote Kimm Darling).

A few of the choices were oddly specific. Maggie Crane finds instant happiness from eating hearts of palm with Feta cheese. Amy Lottes craves “bruschetta with fresh mozzarella and basil and tomatoes from the garden.” A guy named Joe loves leftover Indian food for breakfast, and I can’t disagree with him.

To my disappointment, only one person selected doughnuts (bless you, Katie Mortensen). But my colleague Beth O’Malley chose homemade cherry pie, which to my mind is the next best thing to doughnuts.

Younas Khan won the funniest response award, and all the glory that goes with it, with “Free food has never disappointed me.” And occasional correspondent Alan Steinberg hit perhaps closest to my heart with his one-word answer: Gin.

Still, the response that came up most frequently was pizza. I can’t say I’m surprised. Whenever we’re in a time of trouble or crisis, we turn to pizza. When we are feeling joy or bliss, we turn to pizza. When we are feeling no particular emotion at all, we turn to pizza.

My friend Melissa put it best when asked about the food that makes her happy. “Pizza,” she said. “And then pizza.”

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