We should have known this was coming. It was portended by a series of inauspicious omens throughout the year. The wildfires in Australia. The skies in California turning a dreadful shade of orange in September. The harrowing ordeal Christopher Nolan endured trying to make sure people saw Tenet on the big screen. Perhaps Tom Brady’s move to Tampa Bay should have given us the hint that whatever unholy development loomed would originate in New England, much like the official coffee of Ben Affleck’s highly scrutinized walks with Ana de Armas.
Last week, Dunkin’ (née Dunkin’ Donuts), added a spicy donut to its menu.
Ostensibly, the Spicy Ghost Pepper Donut is part of the chain’s slate of Halloween promotional items, along with a decorate your own donut kit, a (pretty tasty) pumpkin donut, and their Spider Donut (the “spider” being a decorative design, not an ingredient). But we all know why the Spicy Ghost Pepper Donut really exists: because the world is in a state of chaos where few norms remain intact and fewer boundaries sacrosanct. The Spicy Ghost Pepper Donut was, in retrospect, all but inevitable.
But how could we have predicted this specific manifestation of dark energy? A donut infused with the world’s spiciest pepper might seem at home in one of the upscale donutoriums that have sprung up over the last several years in the wake of the collapsing cupcake-based economy. You know, the kinds of places that might call their employees “doughtenders” and feature adventurous flavors like Cookies & Cream & Cardamom or Raspberry Bone Marrow. But a ghost-pepper-infused donut from Dunkin’?
Yes, offering a spicy ghost pepper donut is technically within the chain’s purview, in the same way Dunkin’ could conceivably decide to serve individually brewed cups of single origin pour-over coffee. But doing so seems to violate the spirit of Dunkin’ and its ethos of get in and get out. The slogan, after all, is “America runs on Dunkin’,” not “America sits down for a while and enjoys Dunkin’.” Unless you are one of each location’s obligatory klatch of four to eight old men who dominate the seating area from opening until mid-morning, the tables and chairs are for show, as ornamental as your grandmother’s decorative soaps, or the tuba on the wall of a TGI Friday’s. Picture a novelist encamped at a square Dunkin’ table, nursing a single cup of coffee for hours while toiling over a manuscript. It can’t be imagined without also envisioning an adult bully subsequently knocking their laptop off the table with a cardboard cutout of Rob Gronkowski or Eli Manning.
It’s not that the clientele doesn’t want more adventurous food, it’s just not what one goes to this particular establishment for. The options at Dunkin’ are designed to be devoured, not savored. Even its (excellent, I will say) Beyond Sausage breakfast sandwich, a recent addition to the menu, fits the theme of convenience. It’s an on-the-go meal for people who want to do more for the environment and animal rights but don’t care that much about eating vegetables. In short, my kind of people.
I am an unapologetic Dunkin’ fan, even though I’m more likely to call it Dunks or Dunkies, or even the original “Dunkin’ Donuts,” refusing to acknowledge its changing identity the same way my dad gives driving directions according to New England landmarks that were demolished 25 years ago. I love that a large Dunkin’ iced coffee is twice as big as the biggest cold brew you can get from a fancier chain, and cheaper too. I love that ordering your coffee “regular” means with cream and sugar, for some reason. My hometown of Stoneham, Massachusetts, now has six Dunkin’ locations, all technically walkable from the house where I grew up. If loving the chain isn’t technically in my blood, it at least permeated the air I breathed during my formative years.
Dunkin’ iced coffee, which I drink year-round like a true Masshole, is the standard against which I judge all other coffee. Not because it’s the best, but because it was my first coffee, and it laid the blueprint for what all iced coffee should be: voluminous, not too strong, and doctored liberally with creamer and sweetener, sometimes against your explicit wishes. When I taught preschool in my 20s, early mornings at work after late nights out were enabled by a large Dunkin’ iced coffee that propped my eyes open. I own Dunkin’ sneakers (a collaboration with Saucony). Somehow, through sheer Bostonian kismet, I’ve lived for nine years in New York City, and never more than one block from a Dunkin’ outpost. It’s like New York’s embassy to me, specifically. If Dunkin’ puts a new item on the menu, I am obligated—nay, destined—to try it. (Except of course the short-lived tuna salad croissant, because I do not want to leave my wife a widow out of fealty to a coffee chain.)
Last Friday morning I used the proprietary Dunkin’ app, which of course I already had on my phone, to order a Spicy Ghost Pepper Donut along with my usual iced coffee. By the time I arrived to pick up my order, the coffee was ready, but the donut was gone. “Was the pastry itself a ghost?” I wondered. I didn’t complain, figuring that anyone who would steal a single Spicy Ghost Pepper Donut wanted it more than I did. To avoid the morning rush I came back a few hours later and paid for a second donut, which I brought home to eat because, again, you don’t linger in a Dunkin’.
The Spicy Ghost Pepper Donut is not as visually frightening as its name suggests. It looks like a regular strawberry frosted donut (a Homer Simpson donut, if that helps), but with a dusting of bright red sugar sprinkled on top of the frosting to suggest: Danger! This donut bites back! At first, it tastes pretty much like a regular strawberry frosted donut, too, which is to say it is alarmingly sweet.
Then, after the sweetness fades, the spice emerges. It’s not an aftertaste exactly. It’s more like a second, separate taste. There is no real synergy between the two flavors. It’s just one … and then the other. Imagine a Dropkick Murphys song that ends with a flamenco breakdown. (The Dropkick Murphys, by the way, are also from Boston. That’s actually the moral of Martin Scorsese’s 2006 film The Departed.)
At the very least, it’s a fascinating experience. Even though it’s not complementary to the donut’s sweetness, the level of heat is, strangely, perfect. It falls halfway between a lie (“This isn’t even spicy!”) and a dare (“It’s free if you can finish the whole thing!”). My wife, after taking a bite, wondered how many spicy donuts one could eat before tapping out. And that’s it exactly: The Spicy Ghost Pepper Donut feels engineered to be consumed en masse as part of a donut-eating challenge between high school students, or a technically-not-abuse fraternity initiation ritual. That said, I have to imagine that the lingering warm sensation pairs terribly with hot coffee or even “the morning” in general. But other than that, eating one is pretty enjoyable.
The triumph of the Spicy Ghost Pepper Donut isn’t so much that it’s good—it’s that it is. The donut is an existential triumph. As the COVID-19 pandemic has forced so many of us into rigid routines for economic survival and physical safety, it was exciting to try something weird and new, to feel an unexpected feeling. In a year defined by escalating and inevitable bad news, it felt exciting to experience something inscrutable, in a way that was fun rather than terrifying. Do I like the taste of the Spicy Ghost Pepper Donut? I think so. Did I enjoy eating it? Yes, definitely. I had one on Friday and another on Sunday, and I’ll probably have at least one more before they disappear from the menu in December.
The Spicy Ghost Pepper Donut isn’t primarily a food item at all. It’s an experience, an activity. For $1.50, you can excuse yourself momentarily from your daily life and allow a strange pastry to overwhelm your consciousness. The sensory experience, sure, but also the underlying questions about it. At what occasion or time of day am I supposed to eat this donut, ideally? Is it Halloween-themed because it has the word “Ghost” in the name? Is Fred the Baker, also known as the Time to Make the Donuts Guy, currently rolling over in his grave? Do I enjoy this? Do I hate it? It’s something to sit with in all its puzzling imperfection, to mull over, to talk about with friends. It’s like HBO’s The Vow for your mouth.
In a year full of unexpected and ongoing challenges, fraught with so much uncertainty, it is a genuine relief to feel puzzled by something so low-stakes. As long as I’m focused on the gentle burn of the Spicy Ghost Pepper Donut, I’m not focusing on the presidential election or the fact that I haven’t been able to visit my parents in almost a year on account of a global health crisis. It even, for a brief and lovely blink of time, blots out the fact that Mookie Betts is currently playing in the World Series for the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Josh Gondelman is a comedian living in New York City. He’s currently a producer and writer on Showtime’s Desus & Mero. You can hear him on his weekly podcast Make My Day, and see him tweet at @joshgondelman.