Durham Doughnut ambassador seeks to reconnect readers with sweet memories

Apr. 05, 2014 @ 04:46 PM

With four doughnuts between them, Julie Jean Thomson was at the downtown doughnut shop Monuts Donuts with a friend recently.

The number and variety of doughnuts that they ordered sparked the interest of another customer, who asked if it was Thomson’s job to write about doughnuts.

While it’s not her regular day job, the 35-year-old Durham resident is a self-described doughnut historian, ambassador and author on the side.

Last year, she visited about one new doughnut shop a week, and tasted about 84 different varieties. She visited some shops -- such as Durham’s Monuts and Rise Biscuits and Donuts -- more than once. When she travels, she has a habit of looking for a new shop or a new flavor to try.

She attended Krispy Kreme Doughnut’s 75th anniversary celebration in Winston-Salem, and has worked up to eating six doughnuts in the 5-mile, doughnut-eating Krispy Kreme Challenge.

She is the author of a doughnut-focused blog called “Keep Your Eye Upon the Donut,” tweets about doughnuts using the Twitter handle @donutgrrl, and has also written about North Carolina doughnuts and shops for Our State magazine’s “Our State Eats” blog.

“I’ve come to realize in the last few years that doughnut shops are important to me in a way that they aren’t to other people,” Thomson said.

Recently, she curated an exhibit in New York City at the City Reliquary, a community museum. Coverage of the exhibit ended up in The New York Times and in the New York Daily News.

She traced the history of doughnut shops in Brooklyn and Manhattan back to a shop in the 17th century, and profiled nine independent shops. She had volunteered at the museum when she lived in the neighborhood in Brooklyn.

In an audio documentary that she did for the Duke University Center for Documentary Studies certificate program called “In Search of the Marble Donut,” Thomson explains that she’s on a kind of doughnut search.

The documentary traces the start of her love of doughnuts to age 4. She has vivid memories from that time of eating marble doughnuts at a shop in Michigan with her mother. They sat at the counter on brown bar stools and ate doughnuts served on wax paper. There were little flakes of frosting left over at the end.

“I can see it all,” Thomson said. “It was a really powerful and delicious memory.”

She goes on to try doughnuts at a range of different shops. She’s searching for a doughnut with vanilla frosting with a chocolate drizzle like the ones she had as a child. She even returned to the place where the shop used to be in Michigan.

Now through her travels, tastings and writings, Thomson said she wants to help other people reconnect with fond memories of eating doughnuts, as well as to introduce people to new shops and doughnut varieties. And through her interviews with doughnut shop owners, she hopes to highlight their hard work.

She has written about Durham’s Rise, and Monuts, as well as Guglhupf Bakery, Restaurant, & Café’s jam-filled, Berliner yeast doughnuts and Scratch Bakery’s doughnut muffin.

With the opening of Monuts and Rise, she said she believes Durham has seen a “doughnut renaissance.” She visited each shop 10 times last year. They are bringing a lot of innovation to the art of doughnut-making, she said.

Sitting by a front window at Monuts recently, Thomson bit into a coconut dream. The coconut topping was crumbled, rather than shredded, “which is huge,” she said, because not everyone likes the shreds.

Her advice to doughnut-eating novices is to eat the flavors you like. To avoid a sugar rush, she likes to add a glass of milk. If she’s trying to taste more than one, she eats only a quarter or a half of each one. For day-old doughnuts, she said dunking them is a great way to revive them.