My New York Obsession

This Doughnut Could Save Your Life

A New Yorker’s meditation on love, life, death, and coconut cream.

Photo by Sayaka Ueno

If a drone were trying to follow me along West 23rd Street in Manhattan, it would have its work cut out for it. The machine might track me walking in a straight line for a bit, but then I’d suddenly dart across the two-way street, long before reaching the crosswalk, traffic be damned.

doughnut plant
My favorite doughnuts aren’t actually doughnut shaped: They’re square. And they’re perfect. / Photo by Sayaka Ueno

Or it would find me making it to one of the avenues, only to double back to retrace my steps—perhaps twice—before finally returning to the middle of the street, to that place that I just cannot resist visiting: The Plant. The Doughnut Plant, that is.

This Doughnut Plant, located in the Chelsea Hotel, was not the one I initially fell in love with. This one is almost too easy to love. To be enamored with this place is unsurprising but not original. I admit, the decor is hard to resist. Like the doughnuts, the hand-painted wall tiles are shaped like O’s. Genius. Ditto the cushions. Of course, a cushion with a hole in the middle would be uncomfy to sit on, so they’ve instead chosen to hang them all over the walls. Pillows on the walls! Also genius. But the true genius, of course, is the doughnuts, which are hand-rolled, fluffy, and covered in artisanal glazes. Circular tiles and cushions aside, my favorite doughnuts aren’t actually doughnut shaped: They’re square. And they’re perfect. Peanut butter–glazed and filled with homemade blackberry jam; a coconut flavored one filled with freshly made coconut cream. Doughnut Plant recently began offering delivery (via Postmates and DoorDash). When my father died last spring, I summoned a dozen of those coconut cream babies and, together, we sat shiva. Death is just a little easier to face when there are doughnuts.

When my father died last spring, I summoned a dozen of those coconut cream babies and, together, we sat shiva. Death is just a little easier to face when there are doughnuts.

doughnut plant
Death is just a little easier to face when there are doughnuts. / Photo by Sayaka Ueno

The Doughnut Plant that I originally fell in love with was, and still is, on Grand Street on the Lower East Side. Although it has since expanded, when I first started going there, it was just a hole(!)-in-the-wall where you could buy doughnuts in the morning until they sold out. A squat and jovial man worked the counter, while a baker toiled in the back and the owner, Mark Isreal, a bandana tied around his head, would ferry doughnuts to and from local coffee shops all morning long. On the wall hung a large photo of his grandfather, who developed a special doughnut recipe at his bakeshop in Greensboro, North Carolina, using skills he acquired stationed in Paris as a baker in the Army during World War I. These weren’t just doughnuts—they were doughnuts with a pedigree!

I first discovered the Lower East Side Doughnut Plant in my early 20s. Every Wednesday, for several years starting when I was a teenager, I used to visit an elderly, mostly blind woman who lived in the Seward Park Cooperative housing, also on Grand Street. I was matched with her by the city’s Department for the Aging, which I’d reached out to because I was dealing with depression and someone suggested volunteering might help me get out of my own head. Or maybe it was supposed to help me see that other people in the city lived lives more miserable than mine.

When I got paired with an 80-something woman named Beatrice, that proved very true. Beatrice was, indeed, miserable. “I’m a real bitch,” she told me the first time we met. She wasn’t exaggerating. Orphaned at age 6 and raised, reluctantly, by a stepmother in Williamsburg who favored her own children over her, Beatrice didn’t finish school and never married. Despite all that, she set out to become a businesswoman and ended up operating her own hair-removal salon for decades on 14th Street.

Over the years, Beatrice became more and more difficult to deal with. I was still young enough to find her charming, but our visits got more fraught. At first, I blamed her lack of eyesight more than her character. When I found that maggots had eaten a hole through a pile of old stamps on her kitchen table, I was horrified, but she seemed unconcerned. One day, I took a sip from the coffee mug she’d offered me and wound up with a cockroach in my mouth. I opened the percolator to find that a family of roaches had taken up residence in the pot. A smarter person might have abandoned the whole unremunerative effort at that point, but not me. I continued going but resolved to bring my own coffee.

doughnut plant
It didn’t seem right to only get a coffee. I mean, it wasn’t called Coffee Plant. / Photo by Sayaka Ueno

That is what prompted me to wander into Doughnut Plant. It didn’t seem right to only get a coffee. I mean, it wasn’t called Coffee Plant. So I got a cinnamon bun for myself and a chocolate-glazed doughnut for Beatrice. This soon became a weekly ritual. We bonded over how incredibly good those doughnuts were. I think the doughnuts made her nicer. It’s hard to be a bitch while eating a doughnut.

Doughnut Plant helped extend my relationship with Beatrice beyond its natural life. In quick succession, not long after she turned 90, her half sister died, then her niece, then her half brother. Over our doughnuts and coffee (mine now always in a paper cup), she’d bellow on about how she was totally alone in the world. This stung, as it left me feeling a bit invisible. Hello! What about me over here, sweeping up your maggots!? Eventually I came to realize that her gratitude wasn’t what motivated me to go see her every week; the doughnuts were.

When Beatrice slipped in the bath and was alone for 10 hours before anyone showed up to help, I arranged for a social worker to visit her. After their meeting, the social worker called me in tears, saying she’d never had an old person be so mean to her.

Ending a weekly doughnut ritual is a surefire weight-loss plan. But a life totally without doughnuts might as well be one where coffee comes with cockroaches.

But I kept going, week after week, coming to think of my time with her as a kind of penance I had to pay for my Doughnut Plant habit. One day, when I came in to find the floors smeared with her own filth, I realized that our relationship had finally run its course. No doughnut was that good. I suggested I help her find a home health aide, but she hissed at me that she was alone in the world and wanted to remain that way. So I subtracted myself from the equation for good.

 

doughnut plant
I think the doughnuts made her nicer. / Photo by Sayaka Ueno

Ending a weekly doughnut ritual is a surefire weight-loss plan. But a life totally without doughnuts might as well be one where coffee comes with cockroaches. I don’t find myself near the Grand Street location very often, but when life brings me to Chelsea, I can’t easily pass Doughnut Plant without stopping in. Sometimes I get two doughnuts there. One for me and one in honor of Beatrice. But now, I eat them both myself.

Annie Grossman is a writer and dog trainer in New York City. She has been a columnist for The New York Times, The New York Observer, and the New York Post, among other publications. She owns and operates School for the Dogs in NYC and hosts School for the Dogs Podcast.