As the saying goes, it is the early bird who gets the worm. That idiom is such a part of American English that we don’t think a lot about it and consequently it has been depleted of most of its impact. We’re not birds, we don’t care about worms, and if you’ve ever stumbled out of your apartment at 10:00am after a big storm, you know there are plenty to spare for even the laziest and latest of birds. So things for which setting your alarm at 6:00am is completely worth it are few. In order to restore meaning to this little axiom that prompts us to get our asses out of bed and get it while it’s hot, I propose this: “The early girl gets the donut.”
Now this saying actually makes sense, as you would know if you had ever tried to get a $2.00 round of fried dough from Federal Donuts. Wait around, my friend and you won’t only be deprived of a breakfast of earthworms, but the most sublime substance you might ever want to put in your mouth, except for maybe a good, ripe zinfandel, but even I don’t drink wine for breakfast (well, unless it’s champagne at brunch, of course, which is socially acceptable morning drinking.)
It’s no surprise that this story involves an Israeli connection. Read back through some of my DL posts—most of them do. Federal Donuts is the Philadelphia fried dough go-to, started by Michael Solomonov, also the owner of acclaimed Israeli restaurant, Zahav. So now you really have my interest going. I never would have considered donuts “my thing,” but at the gentle, consistent prodding of my friend who I will simply name R, I am really coming around to the dark side.
So the two of us designed a mid-week excursion to the far reaches of Philly to indulge in what are typically known as the best donuts in the city. At 6:45, I was dressed and ready in my walking shoes, appetite in tow. Fascinated by this little marvel of a shop and the attached hoopla, I was prepared to pepper the staff with questions like, “Why is it called Federal Donuts?” I imagined the name was meant to designate a certain official nature to the product, like, these are superior donuts, even the government says so.
Turns out I was able to save that question and probably some embarrassment by simply noticing the cross street: Federal. Huh…no shit.
When it comes to eating out, I’m a pre-shopper—I always study the online menu first. This is especially helpful if you find yourself on a blind dinner date with a man who is too uncomfortable to allow you the requisite four minutes of silence to read the offerings cover to cover (little tip from the singleton). Anywho, I had it in mind that I was probably going to go for the halva pistachio (very Israeli) and maybe split the oatmeal raisin.
So after a train ride, a trolley ride, and much walking, we spied the red rooster. As we walked into the not-much-bigger-than-a-postage-stamp shop, I gazed up at the varieties printed on a board above my head starting with “pomegranate-Nutella.” W.T.F. “These aren’t the donuts on your website,” I blurted out. The good-spirited girl behind the counter laughed, “you’re like the third person to say that!” Now I needed time to reconfigure my game plan. I was wavering.
R took control. “We’ll take a dozen of the ‘fancies’ (2 of each), and half a dozen of the fresh-hot.” Wait, what? This, he reasoned, would give us the opportunity to try all of them and then he’d bring the rest over to church for the staff. Knowing my body’s champion ability to transform carbs to fat, I was hesitant, but in the end I will say this was really a stroke of genius and the best way to go.
The fresh-hot variety are made to order, just like the minis at the state fair, only not mini (better). Appollonia Spice was our favorite, covered in a sugar mixture of cocoa, orange blossom, and clove. The ‘fancies’, as they call them, are your standard cake donut with decidedly un-standard toppings and preparations. We started by splitting the pomegranate-nutella sprinkled with sesame seeds. My assessment: tangy, chocolatey, and really f-ing good.
Next dip into the box was for the chili mango. Tastes shockingly like eating an actual mango—really, only the texture is different. We could have taken a bit more heat, but it was delicious.
Okay. That was enough. Close up the box (they will even give you a new sticker to make it look unopened!). We began our journey back to the city center, giant box in hand, with the full knowledge that there was yet some more sampling to do, but that a walk in between courses would make a good intermission (we should have asked for a sticker to go). We found a bench outside Suburban Station and re-cracked the box.
By this time, we were only going for bites to get the flavors down (yes, we have some self-control). Coffee mandarin was weird, R liked strawberry rhubarb pie but I wasn’t much of a fan. Chocolate banana was less than ideal—he’s not into chocolate and I can’t do artificial banana. Creamsicle tasted like orange muffin.
Full tasting accomplished, we parted company and I headed back to Chestnut Hill, however the early hour in which we had boarded our train and my initial assumption that we were coming back together (and thus I didn’t need to concern myself with the finer details) meant that I got off at the wrong stop, and as one would imagine, in a less than shining district of Philadelphia. Typical.
After phoning a friend for reorientation assistance, I was on my way, hoofing it out of there as fast as I could. Not having packed my taser, I had only one line of defense should I be confronted by an ‘unsavory’: the single chili mango donut I had reserved as a treat for my roommate. I wasn’t planning to hand over this precious souvenir, but if push came to shove, I was prepared to sacrifice it.
The very long walk, though not intended, was a mixed blessing. I think the X number of donuts (quantity is not important) that were planning to take up permanent residence around my mid-section may have had to think otherwise.
A warm day, mind-blowing donuts, and the company of a fellow junkie…delightful. Federal Donuts, government endorsement or not, is the official Philadelphia purveyor of fried dough. That is no small honor. It’s worth the journey…and the six a.m. wake-up call.