Looking for something small, mundane and meaningless to anger your friends? Try celebrating National Doughnut Day, which is coming up on Friday, while humming “It’s Hip to be Square.”

It’s also litigious to be square, as it turns out. Rival bakeries in Indiana are locked in a law suit over the use of the name “square doughnut” to describe their four-sided pastries with holes in the center. The dispute started when both companies tried to get a trademark for the term.

Not to glaze over things — we prefer them covered with chocolate and candy sprinkles, actually — but we have to wonder if this whole legal skirmish is misguided in the first place. The question on the table (so to speak): Can a doughnut be square? Or is it something else entirely?

Let the Lincoln-Douglas Debate of our era commence.

The con

The doughnut did not evolve into a ring shape. It didn’t start out octagonal and get perfected by generations of pastry chefs seeking some Platonic ideal. It was flat-out straight-up invented in 1847 by Hanson Gregory. As the story goes — something we often say when we’re 65 percent sure it’s false — he was unhappy with the state of “doughnuts.” They were greasy, misshapen and had raw centers because they weren’t sufficiently cooked. He said he punched out the middle, and voilà, there’s your doughnut.

It’s a great anecdote. Unfortunately, there’s some evidence to the contrary. An 1800 cookbook had a recipe for “dow nuts,” but that doesn’t mean they were circular. Washington Irving’s 1809 account of New York traditions describes “dow nuts” as something we now call doughnut holes, that strange item whose mass is described by a term suggesting an absence of mass. But as long as its origins are shrouded in the mists of history, we might as well go with the Hanson Gregory origin, since it establishes the essential attributes of a doughnut:

1. It has a hole.

2. It is round.

Why is the second one important? It’s simple: Once you admit any other shape, you open it up to triangles and rectangles. But, you say, you’re talking bismarcks, then. No one looks at the clumpy mass of a fritter and says, “Could be a doughnut.” No one looks at a bear claw — which is essentially a very confused glazed doughnut — and wonders, “Is that a doughnut? I am unsure.” There are names for these things already, and most important, they don’t have a hole.

Well, the skeptics say, who says they have to have a hole? If they don’t have to be circular, then they don’t have to have a hole. This is where the slippery slope of moral relativism inevitably ends. Anything’s a doughnut! For all I know you’re a doughnut. This red paving brick is a doughnut.

Let’s ask someone who knows about these things — at the Bogart’s Doughnut Co. stand in the IDS Crystal Court.

Q: You are a doughnut shop, right?

A: Uh — yes.

Q: You don’t have square doughnuts, right?

A: Er — no.

There you have it. By the way, the stand is just a few yards from the escalator Mary Tyler Moore took in the opening credits of her show. She was not eating a square doughnut. You might say, “They didn’t have them back then. Times change. Things evolve.” But to say that they do is not to say that they must. Call it what you like, but the square doughnut is no doughnut.

If they just called it a Squonut, we wouldn’t be having this argument.

Please like this on Facebook and keep American doughnuts round. As for whether it’s doughnut or donut, use whatever you like. It’s a free country.

The pro

What? Really? This is even an issue?

Have you seen a square doughnut? Take a look at a picture of one. Soft, sweet dough. Fits in your hand. Covered with all sorts of delightful things — a translucent glistening glaze, a drizzle of jam, a thick paste that strange chocolate-only doughnuts seem to have.

And it has a hole in the middle, which really ought to be your first clue. Who would look at it and say, “I have no context for this. It confuses and frightens me. Take it away.” No, you’d say, “Hey, a doughnut. Cool.”

So it’s square? Show me the Iron Law of Doughnut Geometry, passed by Congress as part of the National Pastry Identification Act. Oh, right, you can’t, because it doesn’t exist. Besides, it’s not as if it’s got sharp edges like a real square. No one ever cut themselves on the point of a square doughnut. There’s a little roundness there, if you can’t deal with its lack of circularity.

One of the proud local proponents of the Square Revolution is Bradley Taylor, owner of Sssdude-Nutz, a Dinkytown shop that offers square doughnuts laden with all sorts of toppings — breakfast cereals, smushed candy, whatever sounds good.

Why have they smashed the existing paradigm?

“My favorite fast food is Wendy’s, and I like that they’re out there killing it, and doing square patties to separate themselves. It turned out an added bonus: There’s a math major that came through once, and he said because I clearly don’t cut corners, the donuts are bigger than circular donuts.”

He’s been making square confections since last spring, but he’s still surprised by how people react to the shape — and the abundance of non-standard toppings.

If the notion of a square doughnut bugs you that much, think of it this way: Inside that square doughnut there’s a round one, and if you just get a knife you can turn it into the doughnut of your dreams. Those parts you cut off? I’ll take them off your hands, thank you very much.

Please like this on Facebook and argue about it passionately to alienate longtime friends.

 

@Lileks