A short yarn about seafaring and the origin of doughnuts.
One night in 1847, Hanson Gregory, a teenage ship hand, fried cakes aboard a schooner. He shaped the dough in the traditional way—as diamonds, or folded as “twisters.” And although he knew that these cakes warded off seasickness, he also knew their raw insides and slicks of grease were hard to digest. In a moment of inspiration, he grabbed the cover of a tin pepper box and used it to cut a hole in the middle of one of the cakes before frying it, and the doughnut, as we know it, was born. These historical facts were documented in a Washington Post interview with then-Capt. Gregory in 1916, and Piper includes that article after his short story and cites it as its inspiration. He also expands the narrative by fictionalizing the morning of the Post interview and Gregory’s rendering of that fateful night. The story begins with the captain at his retirement lodgings, gathered around a fire and sharing much-anticipated doughnuts and his yarn with fellow retirees and the reporter. Readers won’t know where the story is headed, but Piper creates the tone of a classic ghost story. Gregory takes his listeners back to 1847, when he worked in the galley with a nameless cook who calls him down from the crow’s nest with a growl. It’s stormy, and Gregory, “dumbstruck with fear,” descends the “slippery shroud.” Even Jimmy, the replacement watch, looks like he’s seen a ghost. Piper’s descriptions are vivid throughout, and his dialogue is believable, with just enough colloquialism to lend atmosphere; suspense builds as the storm descends upon the ship. The title suggests exotic lands, treasure, and adventure, though, so when the plot finally centers on Gregory’s doughnuts, it initially comes as a surprise. Not a devastating one—Piper ties the better doughnuts to the saving of the ship—but the change in tenor is palpable and somewhat deflating.
An entertaining, well-written tale, but its unexpected tonal shift suggests that it might have worked better as part of a longer work.