Why Donuts Are Like Sex, Plus a Letter From Jackie Robinson

Chock full o' Nuts donut.jpgChock Full o’ Something

Yes, we can be nostalgic, really nostalgic, for something we never knew.
Of course, we’ve understood for eons that nostalgia — a warm haze of sentimental regret for a more beneficent past — needn’t have anything to do with what we actually did or saw. My own nostalgias usually hang on something edible: a stuffed artichoke, a cold piece of buttered toast, a dripping pickle. Each of these personal — Brooklyn — icons kicks off an emotion-larded story, a tale whose verifiable details left the premises long ago, but whose meaning gains traction with every recounting.

Donut powder on customer.jpg

So, I must report that I am swamped with nostalgia for a Chock full o’ Nuts donut, the kind that sprays clouds of talcum sugar onto your chest and lap.
Never had one of those powder bombs gone off in my mouth before last week.
I needn’t retail the donuts of my life, the fresh and the boxed, the sport and the routine. Still, somewhere along the donut line, a chocolate-covered heavy bullied its way into my grade-school psyche. I’ve spent thousands of calories trying to madeleine that moment, looking for the same audible crack into the hard, dark skin, the feminine chew through vanilla-scented cake, the choking bulk sluiced by gulps of milk.
The only thing I learned is that all Entenmann’s labels should read “You can’t go home again.” (For those of you in some other place, Entenmann’s is a giant Long Island, New York baking company that wears a local, homemade costume — until you read the chemistry-set ingredients. Squads of its glossy chocolate donuts await purchase on every corner. Its pound cake alone remains … almost pure.)
Nutted Cream
I live with someone who says he ate every day at a Chock full o’ Nuts near the bookstore in which he worked while struggling to survive in New York as an artist and poet. The “Chock” brand first sat atop shelled-nut stores and then lunch counters. The stand-alone coffee and jingle came later:
Chock full o’ Nuts is that hea-venly coffee,
Hea-venly coffee,
Hea-venly coffee,
Chock full o’ Nuts is that hea-venly coffee,
Better coffee…
Well, first it was “Rockefeller’s money can’t buy,” but Gov. Nelson sued, so it became “a millionaire’s,” then, as inflation set in, “a billionaire’s.” So the New York name of popular, counter-only eateries became attached nationally to a brand of workaday supermarket coffee, the antithesis of its future nemesis, burnt, pseudo-Euro Starbucks. But these Depression shops thrived at least into the ’60s, serving secretary sandwiches and donuts with the joe.
Well-trained uniformed servers, many of them black, wore “untouched by human hands” gloves. Doily-strewn Schrafft’s was a ladies-who-lunch extravagance, while Chock full was the nickel version, with dainty, satisfying sandwiches too: especially the nutted cheese (Neufchatel and walnuts on whole-wheat raisin) and what most people remember, the date-nut and cream cheese. Yes, there was ham and cheese, lobster salad (25 cents in the late ’50s!) and the like for the clerical working class, but some things stick — to the roof of your mouth.
One of the joys of writing for readers and not editors is that you can bury your lede in the same way a raisin is buried in a loaf: “Not long ago, a Chock full o’ Nuts with vintage items on the menu opened at 25 W. 23rd St., right next door to the new, jammed Italian-food mall with the annoying name Eataly.” London-based friend Daniel Young nailed that urban-tourist shopping experience on his blog — you may recognize the white-haired guy grabbing pasta. Too bad Dan didn’t follow that up, as I did, with Chock nutted cheese, date-nut cream cheese, and donuts. But that serious young man who in fact became an artist and poet did come with me so we could test our various nostalgias side-by-side.
We sat at a table; with tables, it’s almost restaurant. Servers were friendly as could be — but no gloves. Nutted-cheese and homemade date-nut bread with whipped cream-cheese sandwiches were $5.95 and $4.95 respectively, which in 1960 dollars would be 83 and 69 cents. The ingredients felt properly “old.” You know I mean “old” as in “old-fashioned,” not moldy or stale.

Chock full date-nut sandwich.JPG

Yet the sandwiches themselves, like the date-nut at left, looked dropsical, swollen, with thicker bread and too much filling. The tearoom scale that once made them almost elegant, even on chunky restaurant plates, was gone. Technically, the original proportion of bread to filling worked, but the small size made the sandwiches taste special in another way: they became treats as well as sustenance. And they were sustenance. People with limited funds were hungry then as now.
But look at these babies (at right).
Chock full o' Nuts donut tray.JPG
Hot from the back, then dipped in powdered sugar. Two for $.99. 
I know I must have asked my mom if you could get TB from breathing in that powder. (But did I ever eat one?) They crunch, from the frying. The sugar melts in saliva and immediately joins the crust and the dark, chewy crumb to knit them together. I tested this by eating one unsugared and found that there’s no better way to illustrate that the whole is greater than its parts than by using these two donuts.
Have I ever had a better donut? Not now I haven’t. Generically, it kicks the wimpy Krispy Kreme back into the Southern sand. I’ll be checking Bob’s Coffee & Doughnuts at the Farmers Market on 3rd and Fairfax in L.A. quite soon, those plain ones also sparkling from the fryer.
Why do we like donuts? They symbolize the regularity of pleasure in our lives, and by doing so fasten us lightly to our past.
More Than a Millionaire’s Money Couldn’t Buy

Chock full o' Nuts Jackie Robinson and menu.jpg
Photo credit: Chock full o’ Nuts                 

From 1957 to ’64, former Brooklyn Dodger and first black major leaguer Jackie Robinson was vice president for personnel at Chock full o’ Nuts. On May 13, 1958, he wrote a letter to Dwight D. Eisenhower after the President addressed a meeting of “Negro Leaders” that Robinson had attended. 

Here’s the letter (reproduced in the new Other People’s Rejection Letters by Bill Shapiro, Clarkson Potter):
Jackie Robinson White House letter 1.jpg

The letter concludes: 

…in dealing with Governor Faubus if it became necessary, would let it be known that America is determined to provide — in the near future — for Negroes — the freedoms we are entitled to under the constitution.
Respectfully yours,
Jackie Robinson
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  1. Howie Shapiro says

    Such a nicely done piece — wish I could eat one right now — and the J Robinson letter to Ike is a wonderful addition. Makes me miss my late cuz Norman, eventually a female impersonator in Vegas but before that, a Chock Full quality controller whose job was to travel around this part of the East Coast to lunch at the outlets and file reports. Not exactly heavenly after a while.

  2. says

    Jeff, As a former New Yorker, who orders real pickles (not corporate copies) from Brooklyn, that piece made my day.
    I have to remember not to bring flaky, fluffy, snowy treats too near my computer.
    Thank you for a couple of great “rememberwhens”.

  3. Diane Bacha says

    Ahhhh! Those donuts are ruining my day, I had planned to consume yogurt and salad and now I cannot. Remember when Chock Full o Nuts was what people meant by “coffee shop?” I remember the jingle well, but my memories go back to the “millionaire” phase. And I remember that you could find CFONs pretty easily at one time. To this day, I think any city that can support coffee shops (old definition) has got to be an AOK place.

  4. says

    It’s great to see Chock Full o’nuts coming back. What really drove the Chocks out in the ’80s and early ’90s (the last one as I recall closed in 1991) was the rapidly increasing rents in New York, coupled with what were by then already changing attitudes on menu choices, and a lot of people who grew up in the ’70s and later were not as enamored by the choices offered then. It all will depend on how those under 40 (who for the most part have not had Chocks since their childhood at the latest) accept them.