Donut Day a sweet tradition for Greencastle family

At 92, Vonda Mae Nowell of Greencastle still makes donuts each year on Shrove Tuesday on the cook stove in a cast iron skillet with lard.

Christmas is barely over each year when Vonda Mae Nowell’s grandchildren start asking, ‘Grandma, when is donut day?’

They all know that day will bring the pre-Lent tradition of using up the available sugar, fat, flour and eggs before the season of self-denial prior to Easter. And in their Greencastle area family that means a celebration of togetherness and the creation of hundreds of donuts in their Grandma’s kitchen.

“It’s tradition,” said Nowell, whose maiden name was Moore.

“My mum always made donuts on that day before Lent. I’ve been doing it as long as I can remember.”

Even in our fast-paced, fast-food society, she has continued to pass the practice on to three more generations. Next week (Donut Day is Tuesday, Feb. 21) her great-grandchildren will be among those having a hand in the operation.

Hands in the dough

While Nowell tries to limit the play with the dough (which makes the donuts tough) during the process, she admits it’s hard to keep the little hands from the gooey stuff. It does take plenty of hands to make an operation like this one go with the mixing, cutting, frying, glazing and filling. And when you are dealing with rising dough and making the graze stick properly, timing is important.

Everyone seems to take a spot on the assembly line and the result is in a word....delicious.

“I love making donuts because they are yummy,” said granddaughter Sarah Signore, 23.

“I also like keeping the tradition going and learning from generations before me.”

The old fashioned way

Nowell keeps the donut making very much the old fashioned way. And that’s not just to show the younger generation. She prefers it. Lard is used, and a massive cast iron skillet. And it’s all heated on a wood-burning cook stove.

Ironically her recipe is from her mother-in-law, Florence Matilda (Izer) Nowell, but it’s appropriately called “Fat Cakes”. The recipe has been multiplied many times in order to produce plenty for a large family.

Even the donut cutters are vintage. Daughter Blossom Widder provides cutters that came from the former Widder bakery in Greencastle and Kauffman. More modern versions are rejected in favor of the well-tested cutters.

 Nowell remembers that her mother coated the donuts with granulated sugar. Over the years her operation changed to a homemade glaze that is put on immediately after the donut is fried to preserve freshness — and to be make it that much sweeter.

“There’s nothing like eating that first donut after it’s glazed,” related Widder.

Nowell has never sold any of the donuts made that day. She prefers to make sure her large family gets a good fill.

“Of course eating them is why we made them,” said Nowell. “But I really love sharing them.”


Fat Cakes

4 cups mashed potatoes

4 cups sugar

8 cups milk

8 eggs

8 T. yeast

2 cups lard

4 T. salt

36 cups flour


4 cups 10X sugar

1/2 cup warm water

Pinch of salt

1 t. vanilla

It’s not a small bowl that is used for mixing the dough.