This is the sixth instalment in a weekly TVO.org summer series exploring the origins of Ontario’s signature foods.
If you were to drop by the annual Cornfest in the village of Athens, Ontario — it’s August 19 this year — you’d discover that the biggest lineup was not for the fresh-boiled corn, but for a local specialty called Willard’s Fried Cakes. The simple nutmeg-scented treat is the foundation of a decades-old family business — and for many eastern Ontarians, it’s a waistband-stretching guilty pleasure.
Willard’s Fried Cakes are dense brown lard-fried doughnuts with a pale blonde interior. After a day or so in plastic, they’re uniformly tender, with a slightly moist surface. Fresh, the exterior has a delicate crackle. (True connoisseurs keep tabs on the Willard's Facebook page to find out when “hot doughnuts” are available.)
Now in its 50th year, the bakery is still run by its founder, Carl Willard. His wife, Joan, has been handling the books since 1968, and daughter Carol-Ann Miller works in the shop, located in Athens, population 3,000, half an hour north of Brockville.
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Willard got the recipe from his mother, born in 1900, but no one knows how old it is. Catherine Parr Traill’s 1855 book The Female Emigrant’s Guide includes a recipe for deep-fried “Dough Nuts.” Food historians Nathalie Cooke and Fiona Lucas note in their recent annotated version of Traill’s book that it comes from an 1836 edition of Eliza Leslie’s cookbook Seventy-five Receipts for Pastry, Cakes and Sweetmeats. Leslie’s recipe calls for cinnamon, nutmeg, and rosewater; Traill omits the rosewater. Later books, such as the 1885 edition of Mrs. Owens' Cook Book and Useful Household Hints, by Frances E. Owens, include recipes for fried cakes seasoned with nutmeg alone.
These once-common treats had largely been forgotten by the time Willard asked his mother to share the recipe in 1962, but she doubted her son had the right touch. “She said, ‘You can’t make fried cakes; you have five sisters who can’t make them!” he recalls. Nonetheless, he persuaded her, and while working for the Phillips Cables company in nearby Brockville, Willard “nurtured the idea of going in full-time with the doughnuts.”
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In the late ’60s, Willard assembled a roster of seven stores in Perth, Prescott, Smiths Falls, and Westport willing to stock his fried cakes, which are “made so close to homemade that there’d be no difference to what they’d be if you made them in the house,” he says. “Depending what shift I was on, I would make deliveries and then go in and work an eight-hour shift. I would start off about four in the morning. My dad used to say, ‘Son, there’s only one time in your life you can do something like this.’”
In 1970, Willard left his day job to focus on the fried cakes, working out of his home in the village of Delta. A catastrophic fire in 1976 forced him into a temporary space at a local food factory, but it was sold the next year, so he moved down the road to his current location in Athens. The same year, he took a bus to Toronto with “a briefcase and three or four bags of doughnuts,” walked into Loblaws headquarters, and succeeded in getting his fried cakes stocked in 14 eastern Ontario outlets.
Today, “we have people who come in from Montreal and Florida, especially at Cornfest,” Willard says. On a busy week, his bakery ships as many as 7,500 doughnuts to about 75 outlets across the 613: along the 401 from Trenton to Cornwall, and north to Ottawa, Casselman, and Renfrew.
“They’re made to an old-fashioned recipe, and the older people are passing away,” Willard says, “but there’s still a generation coming on that seem to like them and remember how their grandma used to make them: a plain old-fashioned cake doughnut.”
Sarah B. Hood is a freelance writer and the author of We Sure Can!: How Jams and Pickles Are Reviving the Lure and Lore of Local Food.