The Doughnut Factor and Olive Kitteridge

By Marsha Fottler.

In Elizabeth Strout’s 2009 Pulitzer Prize winning novel called Olive Kitteridge and composed of 13 interrelated short stories, the words ‘doughnut’ or ‘Dunkin Donuts’ are used no fewer than 35 times in this book of 270 pages (paperback edition).

The doughnut references begin on page 67 and continue to drop enticing crumbs right through to the last chapter of this perceptive and achingly honest look into the interior lives of a group of average working people living in a small coastal town in Maine.

The title character, a big-boned retired, seventh-grade mathematics teacher who was both feared and revered in the classroom, kneads the stories together and it’s Olive who can crave the most doughnuts from her local Dunkin Donut shop.

I wasn’t surprised at the importance of doughnuts to the inhabitants of Crosby, Maine. Having lived in a south-shore suburb of Boston for several years, I learned that if your dwelling was situated beyond three miles of a Dunkin Donut shop, your location was considered inconvenient. Dunkin Donuts are the customary comfort food of New Englanders. And they want their Dunkin Donut coffee too. Elizabeth Strout wasn’t engaging in gratuitous product placement in her book. She was being authentic.

In Olive Kitteridge an aging dispirited hardware store owner weekly brings donuts to his wife, but stops to drop one off to his girlfriend too. Olive feeds doughnuts to an anorexic teenager in a futile effort to save the girl. Olive and husband Henry drive to Dunkin Donuts after a church concert and sit in their favorite booth. The waitress knows them. It’s mainly doughnuts, but also lots of other kinds of common foods that are served up in this book. Food is the metaphor for various and complex kinds of emotional hunger that desperately needs feeding in Olive’s hometown.

Through Olive and her neighbors we experience wedding food, funeral food, Christmas food and everyday lunches of crab sandwiches as well as uncomfortable dinner parties of baked beans and ketchup. A parent makes pancakes for a jilted bride on the morning of the girl’s collapsed wedding. A little boy orders a root beer float and regrets it. Food is everywhere in this book. No one should go hungry and yet everyone does. How life’s elemental cravings are satisfied (or disastrously not addressed) make up the touching stories in Strout’s unforgettable book.

About three quarters into reading Olive Kitteridge, I couldn’t hold out any longer. Late on a Saturday night I asked my husband to get up early on Sunday morning and make a Dunkin Donut run. He did while I made coffee. Then I got back into bed and read more of Olive while eating doughnuts from the box. I felt a visceral connection to the people of Crosby, Maine and my hunger, at least, was satisfied. Olive and her friends – well, they’re not so lucky.

-Flavors And More Magazine: August 2009

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