Everyone knows that nothing tastes better than an apple fritter or a Boston cream doughnut fresh out of the vat, the former dipped in warm, white glaze, the latter in melted chocolate frosting. A day later, these delights arrayed on a baker’s rack are delicious, to be sure, but the thrill is gone; they’re no longer in the running for the Best Desserts in the Milky Way any more than, say, a brownie from Soigné.
For many years now, word has been out that Back Door Donuts in Oak Bluffs dispenses these goodies, if you know where to show up and at what time. My mission: To appear through the front door of the MV Gourmet Café and Bakery at 6:30 pm on a recent Tuesday in late June, and to join the chain gang that, starting from scratch, serves up these delicacies to the jonesing hordes in the dark parking lot.
Co-owner (with partner Janice Casey) Rita Brown, cute and short, in a bakery T shirt and her omnipresent baseball cap, said, “We never tell anyone how many fritters we make, unless they want to buy the place.”
She introduced me to Monti from Mongolia (!) and Nazima from Kazakhstan (!) — the exclamation marks are for how far they’ve come — who work the front room, both pretty brunettes. I asked if they missed their family and friends, and they shrugged. Why be homesick with a full summer on Martha’s Vineyard ahead of them?
This was Monti’s fourth summer at the bakery. Her cousin, an exchange student in New Hampshire, had worked here before her, while she in turn fixed up Nazima. Rita, who’s clearly a mother hen with all her dozen-plus U.N. brigade of employees, explained they’re all vetted by previous workers. She has several seasonal rentals in place to take care of their housing needs.
Rita put me in the hands of boss man Raffi Jordan from Jordan. He’s a naturalized American citizen, married to Shirley from Brazil, and he’s been running the industrial kitchen for 15 years, ever since Rita bought the joint — and the secret fritter recipe — from Peter White, now running a luxe B & B in North Carolina with wife Laurie.
Rita gave me a Back Door Donuts fuchsia tee and an apron to go over it which, coupled with the babushka I’d wrapped around my head before leaving the house, made me look like I’ve been eating donuts since the day they reopened back in April. I asked Raffi to put me to work, and he sized me up in a grim way that made me wonder when was the last time Jordan went to war with Israel.
From that point forward, it was the scene in the chocolate factory from “I Love Lucy,” only I had no time to stuff the goods into my hat, shirt, and mouth. Lord knows I wanted to. It’s just that I was raised with good manners, wasn’t I? I couldn’t simply grab doughnuts and start munching, much as I wanted to.
Nefertiti, 22, from Bulgaria, who studies at the University of Sofia — they’re all academically fervent (these are future Masters of the Universe) — showed me how to dip the doughnuts, the ones without holes, in a boiling-hot chocolate soupy thing. “Isn’t this way too hot?” I whined as the tips of my fingers felt like they’d been plugged into a cigarette lighter, but no one answered me. I asked a lot, and no one answered me a lot. Instead, Nefertiti showed me how to take a scissors, bore holes through the doughnuts, then plug ’em up with a pastry bag of Boston cream sauce. So that’s how it’s done! It’s all in the wrist.
Elena, 22, also college-ing it up in Sofia, but who plans to be an actress, worked the door. That’s where the starving multitudes line up from 7 pm to 1 am. She shouted out the Needs of the Moment: “Chocolate glazed! Two maple cakes! Lemon filling!” and Nefertiti and I sprang into action — well, Nefertiti sprang, I lumbered — as we grabbed fresh-from-the-vat glazed or cake doughnuts, dipped them, plumped them up with filling, and placed them worshipfully in paper cups.
As I mingled, I met Serdar, International Relations major from Turkmenistan (!) who’s the Guy; Rita calls him “her star.” The star handled the fritter dough, resembling a big globby chunk of cinnamon-streaked whale blubber, which he picked up and thumped down on the enormous cutting board. After smacking it around, he took up a saber-sized cutter, and diced it into large future fritter pieces. Chunks of apple were apportioned like jewels, then Serdar performed some fancy fretwork with the cutter. Finally the unbaked objets d’art were plunked down on a metal sheet where Guil, 28, from Brazil, and Rahman, 24, from Turkmenistan (!), who studies economics at the University of Turkey, eased fritters and donuts into the two hot vats of oil.
At another chopping block, cutting fresh doughnuts, Artem, 20, from the Ukraine, who studies poli sci at the American University of Bulgaria, said, unlike the cold-hearted girls out front, that of course he’s homesick, and he misses his parents. “I’m an only child,” he said with a hint of poignance. What a sweetheart! I offered to adopt him if his biological family didn’t work out.
Meanwhile Raffi assigned me to help Elena on the door. A nice woman requested four cinnamon buns and four fritters. The buns — not fresh out of the vat, FYI, but stored in a cooler — are as big as the fritters, so the overriding task was to organize two of each in four bags. I had no idea what anything cost, but a menu is posted outside the door, and the woman kindly let me know she owed me $34. $34 sounded like a good ballpark sum and, besides, I’m terrible at math. Especially public math. You know what that is, don’t you? It’s when you’re forced to figure it out right in front of someone. Can’t do it. So I took this nice lady’s $40, gave her $6 in change — I was all over that one, “no problemo!” — and everybody was happy. “Don’t eat them all yourself!” I called out gaily.
My craving for a Back Door goodie started to torture me — jeez, they could use this to replace waterboarding. I was weak with longing. And then my friends writer Rachel Baird and photographer Adrianne Ryan showed up, and, just to mess with me, ordered a fritter “the size of a head.” The entire pastry staff rose to the occasion. Serdar whacked apart a hunk the size of a football. A wait was imposed as the dough went into the cooler to proof. Now there’s a cool word! “Has this fritter been proofed?” a person with a high annoyance factor can ask at the door. After a tapping-of-heels interval for Rachel and Adrianne, Guil eased the big boy into the vat and everyone forsook his and her job to watch the Fritter that Ate Chicago being fried.
When Rahman saw it removed from the oil, he said, “Holy s___!” I asked how you’d express that sentiment in Turkmen, and he offered up, “Baibooou!” which sounded similarly impressive.
At last a cake box was produced for the mega fritter, and I delivered it with a flourish to my friends. And here’s where buddies come in handy. I reached into the box and broke off a big hunk. I crammed it into my mouth in front of a mob of shocked patrons.
“Don’t worry!” I said with my mouth full. “I only do this with every fourth customer!”
After three hours on the chain gang (and these kids work until one in the morning; Raffi stays until the following noon), I slogged home, walked my dog, who’d been made ecstatic by the bakery scent that reamed my clothes and skin, and fell into bed. The next morning I woke up, walked the dog again, and realized I needed another long morning’s snooze to recover from the bout of “real work,” an activity to which I was wholly unaccustomed.
My new goal in life is to return to the bakery after 7 o’clock in the evening and get myself a Boston cream doughnut fresh from its makers. They say the ability to delay gratification is a sign of maturity.