twelve thousand donuts

As I mentioned before, my husband and I agreed to take over the homemade donut stand at the Virginia Mennonite Relief Sale. The sale was this past weekend.

Over the last ten months, I’ve messed around with recipes, run numbers, had several meetings with the previous donut-makers, pored over the three-ring binder of detailed photos and instructions that they so thoughtfully created for us, made lists, checked them twice and thrice, and, after much agonizing, placed the final order for ingredients.

A couple weeks ago, my husband I did a preliminary walk-through of the donut-making spot: the Ruritan club’s chicken shack at the fairgrounds (where the relief sale is held). It was not encouraging. Low ceilings, uneven concrete floors, a row of fryers (I’ve never even seen a fryer up close), several Pepsi machines, a few rickety tables. How in the world…???

And then I started not sleeping. I’d wake up in the middle of the night and think, “We need 140 pounds of mashed potatoes but we’re only making 35 recipes. That can’t be right!” and then I’d struggle with mental math for a very long and entirely unproductive time. In the morning, I’d be like, four pounds of mashed potatoes times 35 is 140, duh. Finally, for the last three nights leading up to the sale, I resorted to Benedryl.

My husband took off work on Thursday and, after what might be the worst family stress-fight we’ve had in a long time, we all went out to the fairgrounds to begin setting up. We scrubbed the place down, laid donated carpet remnants (to facilitate clean-up), rearranged the room, hauled in the donut-making equipment that was stored on the relief sale truck, and washed supplies.

Our mixer!

That evening we dropped the younger two children at my parents’ house (where they would stay for the next two nights before transferring to my friend’s house for the third night).

Friday morning, my husband and I, plus the two older kids, headed back out right for a full day of prep work. We finalized the room’s arrangement, and then the supplies started to arrive. Gallons of milk, cases of butter, cartons of eggs.

And the dry goods: 50-pound sacks of confectioner’s sugar, granulated sugar, vanilla, and mace. Except instead of the “three boxes of mace from the bulk food section of the store” that I had ordered, they sent three buckets of the stuff—you know, what the store gets and then repackages to sell.

When the forklift of flour pulled up to the door, the mace mistake was still fresh on my mind, so I stopped one of the kids to double-check the label. Good thing I did, too, because they had sent 700 pounds of all-purpose flour instead of bread flour. The relief sale organizers flew into top gear, searching local stores for flour. They cleaned out a couple stores before finally finding a bulk food store that had the remaining six hundred pounds of bread flour in stock.

“They’re packaging it up in five-pound bags for you,” the volunteer announced triumphantly. “They might not be exact, but they’ll be close.”

My heart plummeted. Not exact? We had the recipe calculated to the ounce! It had to be accurate. But there was no point in saying anything.

We spent the afternoon mixing the glaze and pre-measuring the sugar, yeast, and salt, wrapping everything up in good time. Yes, I thought. We can get in a good nap.

But then the flour arrived. I set a bag on the scale: 5 pounds 9 ounces.

“We’ll have to rebag it, all of it,” I announced wearily, and to my husband, I muttered, “I am so going to lose it.”

One of the relief sale workers overheard me. Without saying a word, he took off his coat, stepped up to the table, and for the next hour and a half, he twistied shut the remeasured bags. He did more than that, though. His presence prevented me from having a full-blown meltdown. Civil service, literally.

That evening, we went to bed at 8:30. We managed to actually fall asleep, but then the fire alarm went off … twice. Of all the nights! And then my son’s wake-up alarm went off at 11:48—some crazy nuclear siren type alarm—except he had hooked up his phone to his sound system so the beeping was heart-stoppingly loud. So much for sleep. “It’s not even tomorrow yet,” I said, pulling on my jeans.

We arrived at the fairgrounds soon after 1:00 am, and for the next 12 hours, we made donuts. It was an absolute blast.

Some details:

*For the first eight hours, the fairgrounds were fairly quiet. It was dark outside. It felt like we were in our own little, very busy, world. And then around 9 o’clock, the place exploded. Suddenly there was a line. Never before have I had that many people waiting to eat my food!

*There were three shifts of volunteers, about 30 in each shift. Many of the volunteers were experienced and knew more about the process than we did which was wonderful.

*For eleven hours, our older son stood outside in the pavilion (because he was using a gas cook stove) and scalded milk, melted butter, and blended the hot liquid into the mashed potatoes with an industrial immersion blender.

*From the mixing table to the proofing room to the rollers to the runners to the fryers, glazers, and boxers, the system was like a well-oiled machine. My husband and I did supervision, quality control, and problem solving but hardly any of the actual work.

*There were a few glitches (our dough uses less yeast so it took longer to rise, we ran out of boxes, we went over-time and had to call in extra volunteers), but they were totally manageable. It’s just donuts, I kept telling myself (and my fretful husband).

*Exhaustion happened. Around 11:00 am, my face stopped working—I could hardly smile, and it was a struggle to form words. My entire body ached, even my toes. I was hungry. Dehydrated, too. I felt like I might start weeping at any moment.

*The clean-up crew = angels. While I stood around vacant-eyed, they made things happens. Even when I walked out and laid down on a picnic table, they kept at it.

all the leftover flour

We got home mid-afternoon. Unpacked a few things, washed up dishes and a bunch of kettles, ate a donut, vacuumed. My son went to bed at four, and my husband and I were in bed by five. I slept for thirteen hours.

The end.

PS. Except not really. We keep talking about the process, making changes, planning for next year. In church this morning, my husband made a preliminary sketch of how he’d like to re-organize the proofing room.

PPS. We are not at all sick of donuts. Crazy, but true.

This same time, years previous: the soiree of 2014, a lesson I’d rather skip, the quotidian (10.1.12), Sunday cozy, pulled braised beef, and serious parenting.


  • Anonymous

    Thank you for all your family's hard work! Our family attends the Relief Sale every year and we always look forward to donuts. You all did an amazing job and the donuts were delicious!

  • StrictlyMystic

    The donuts look yummy but even more impressive to me is how well your family works together. It's great to see the kids being such a vital and willing part of the whole shebang.

  • Katie

    This is amazing! I had never been to the Relief Sale until this past weekend! Bless you and ALL of your hard work! The donuts were absolutely AMAZING, melt-in-your-mouth good!

  • Unknown

    Congratulations. Welcome to the Fair business, the hardest, most frustrating, time consuming job you'll ever love. I spent 27 years in it and loved evry minute of it (well, almost every minute.)

  • GeorgiaHoneyBee

    Oh my goodness!!! This is the type of sticky wicket I often find myself in!! (by my own hands!!!) 🙂 This post makes me want to drive to Virginia for the next donut sale. mmmmmmmmmmmmmmm

  • Unknown

    This was the first time in many years that I was able to attend the Relief Sale. My timing was great–I was able to walk right up and buy a box of donuts with no wait. I had one (I've been on a sugar-free eating plan) and it was heavenly. Thanks for all of your hard work!!!!

  • Beacon Spot

    Thank you soooooo much! They were absolutely delicious!! The doughnuts are always a bid draw for the relief sale and you did an amazing job!!!!

  • dr perfection

    can you send me contact info on the relief sale workerman who stepped up to help you rebag the flour. I want to marry him.

  • Melodie Davis

    Reminds me of our weekend making pancakes, sausage and (me) sausage gravy for hundreds of eaters at our Broadway Lions pancake sale Sept. 23-24. But thousands? Um 12,000? Astounding but translated to some $12,000 (or does it come out to more) for MCC. Amazing!! I'll share the quantity sausage gravy recipe sometime soon from our leader who had to be away the 2nd day of the sale. Sounds like you rocked it. Thanks for letting us know how stressful it really was behind the scenes, but also that it was a "blast." Yes.

  • Anonymous

    Thanks for all your hard work. The results were delicious and it is fascinating to hear about what goes on in all the other hours. We (Weavers Youth) only see 3-6am.

  • Kathy ~ Artful Accents

    I saw your kids in action out near the line! I wish I had peeked into the kitchen too. I already told you this, but seriously…those donuts were SO good! I could have just put my face inside the box and ate until I was sick, but I stopped at 3! Well done!

  • Rebecca

    Clara said they were the best donuts she'd ever eaten. The work and skill and attention to detail involved…I'm speechless.

  • Crystal

    Yum! What a lot of work! Kudos to you all for making this happen. I'm impressed. Is this final donut recipe on your blog? I would especially appreciate a step by step tutorial for making them at home.Sounds like you are quite the master. My family would be so excited to have fresh donuts.

  • ShirleyHS

    If this doesn't put stars in your crown, the rest of us have no hope. What an extraordinary gift to give your children and so many others.

  • dr perfection

    So, what did the old-timers think of your donuts? I mean, after all the recipe testing you did, they better would have told you the donuts were superior to previous years. And if they didn't, I'm going to come and beat them with a stick.

    • Jennifer Jo

      The couple that passed this operation on to us is AMAZING. The most gracious, loving, helpful, organized, thoughtful people you ever did meet. They ran this operation for 17 years—had equipment specially made, streamlined the process, gave the whole thing SO much thought and care—and then they turned it over to us with such grace. They knew we would do some things differently and yet they were behind us 100 percent. It kind of blew me away.

  • You Can Call Me Jane

    My heart and my mind and my stomach are giving you all a standing ovation. Job incredibly well done. You are my donut heroes. xoxo

  • Margo

    oh my GOSH you guys!!! I love this! I'm so impressed with all the skills and time you brought to this endeavor (and I wish I had known – I would have found an excuse for a road trip to eat your doughnuts).

    Did you really make 12,000 doughnuts? Were there any left over?? Or did you run out?

    • Jennifer Jo

      It was 12000, or thereabouts. Based on the amount of ingredients, that is what it should've been anyway. Not a SINGLE scrap leftover—I witnessed the eating of the last morsel. (I think they sell out every year.)

    • Margo

      I am making plans to come next year – I read all the glowing comments and I know your food.

      Is the sale going to be Sept 30-Oct 1, or Oct 7-8? Not sure which one would be considered the "first weekend in October" which is when the website says the sale is held.

    • Christine Fairfield

      October 7-8! It's actually traditionally the first Saturday of October–only spilled over into Friday a few years ago.

    • Unknown

      The sale next year is actually September 29-30 due to a booking glitch with the fairgrounds. After 2017 it will always be the first Saturday in October.

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