A doughnut is a difficult thing to explain. Carl Berlin has worked in Krispy Kreme’s doughnut production facility for 13 years, and even with said object in hand, words elude him.

“See the ring?” Berlin asks, circling the empty area at the doughnut’s core with his index finger. We’re looking at Krispy Kreme’s most renowned product, the “Original Glazed” doughnut, though our specimen is naked, plucked straight from the fryer. It has yet to be glazed. Before taking me on a tour of the doughnut plant connected to the Krispy Kreme shop on Richmond Highway, Berlin is trying to fulfill my request to break down the appeal of this signature doughnut scientifically. He’s struggling. “You see, you’ve got a hole in the center,” he continues, “and it’s gonna allow for gases…”

It’s no use. Fully defining something the primary attraction of which is its ability to buck the normal rules of matter is a futile task. Not that people haven’t tried. The Post has weighed in. Nora Ephron, paying homage in the New Yorker, wrote that unlike other doughnuts, Krispy Kreme’s don’t cause “doughnut stomach, the primary symptom of which is the recurring sense for hours afterward that you have eaten a doughnut earlier in the day.” I like to take my girlfriend’s “It literally melts in your mouth” assertion a step further and argue that the doughnut all but disappears once it enters your mouth. If anything, Krispy Kreme’s pride and joy is lighter than air, and I’ve spent many mornings at the shop’s counter pondering how a concrete object that possesses such a pronounced vanilla taste could seem to vaporize the moment it enters the human body.

Krispy Kreme’s doughnut recipe is kept secret at the company’s headquarters in Winston-Salem, N.C., where it’s been held since founder Vernon Rudolph purchased the secret formula for a yeast doughnut back in 1935. But even if one were to get his hands on the potion, it probably wouldn’t reveal everything. The beguilement of the Krispy Kreme doughnut transcends the doughnut itself.

The Krispy Kreme shop in Alexandria is open all night, and in the wee hours it attracts a crowd similar to those at Ben’s Chili Bowl and Bob & Edith’s Diner. Insomniacs, thrill-seekers unlucky enough to live in Old Town, and others gather on Krispy Kreme’s handful of stools to engage in activities that are nearly as retro as the shop and the doughnuts it serves. They chat. They smoke. They watch the darkness through the windows. Most people order doughnuts. Some people actually eat them. Everyone else uses them as props.

Since the factory is on the premises, when the neon “Hot Doughnuts Now” sign is turned on, you can believe what it says. Business picks up considerably when the sign goes on, and a woman in line with me one morning tells her friend that even though she’s not much of a doughnut eater, she always stops in for a dozen when they’re fresh because the ritual makes her “feel warm.” Similarly, Ephron writes that obtaining hot doughnuts from the Krispy Kreme in her neighborhood is “the sort of religious experience New Yorkers like me are far more receptive to than the ones that actually involve God.”

The Smithsonian has recently helped boost Krispy Kreme’s cultural capital. In July, the National Museum of American History unveiled a Krispy Kreme installation that includes the Ring King Junior, a doughnut-making machine that looks like a primitive washing machine. Most of the memorabilia dates back to the 1950s, among them a china coffee cup, some aprons, and a printed list of guidelines (“Keep fresh by using deodorant regularly,” “Avoid heavy, theatrical make-up”) meant specifically for Krispy Kreme’s female employees.

David Shayt, collections manager for the museum’s division of cultural history, says that Krispy Kreme was of interest to him largely because, unlike other doughnut chains, its history is linked to the American South—a region that he says, “except for the odd cotton gin,” is not well represented at the museum.

“Krispy Kreme doughnuts opens up a new chapter in the modern South for us in the 20th century,” Shayt explains. “It’s a story of the industrial South—the South of folk mythology….The Krispy Kreme doughnut has a certain allure, you might say, especially in the South. You mention Krispy Kreme and Southerners go into rhapsodies about their first doughnut and where they were [when they ate it] and how it tasted and what happens to their sweat and their eyes. It’s an emotional topic for a lot of people.”

To Carl Berlin, Krispy Kreme represents a job. Even though Krispy Kreme now roasts its own brand of coffee, the store/production facility where Berlin works clearly belongs to a pre-Starbucks era when doughnuts were a central part of most working people’s days. The area where the doughnuts are made looks like a miniaturized version of an auto plant, and Berlin knows the machines well. There are three “lines” in all—huge doughnut making machines, complete with automated guillotinelike blades to cut the dough, conveyor belts that snake from floor to ceiling, glazers, and vats of oil the size of jet fuel tanks. Berlin can pinpoint just where in the process the doughnuts acquire their “skin” and can explain the way gravity is essential to the procedure. The plant makes doughnuts to ship to grocery stores throughout the area as well as those that end up in the shop up front. With two lines going full-bore, Berlin estimates that the facility can produce 1,100 dozen glazed doughnuts an hour.

When the tour is complete, we walk into the shop to try some of the wares. “It’s not bad work,” Berlin says of his job, and hands me a box of six doughnuts to take home with me. There are three older men sitting at the counter. All of them are looking at a photo that an employee is showing them. “That’s me when I was in the service,” she tells them, “only slimmer and younger.” They all laugh at how much she’s changed.

Krispy Kreme Doughnut Company, 6328 Richmond Hwy., Alexandria. (703) 768-0300.

Hot Plate:

After reading Washington City Paper’s “New York Fetish” treatise (8/1), reader Alycia Eck felt compelled to suggest Comet Liquors as a haven for New Yorkers or wannabes stranded in the muggy capital. “It’s part liquor store and part deli,” she writes, “but the bagels are notorious in the ‘hood.” Mornings are the best time to visit, when the bagels are fresh and, if not exactly H&H quality, tasty even without cream cheese. If that weren’t enough, Eck writes of a rumor that “Sid, the owner, packs some heat under those loose, wrinkled shirts he wears religiously. Now, if that doesn’t make a New Yorker feel at home, I don’t know what will.”

Comet Liquors, 1815 Columbia Rd. NW. (202) 265-8800. (202) 234-7439.—Brett Anderson

Eatery tips? Hot plates? Send suggestions to banderson@washcp.com. Or call (202) 332-2100

and ask for my voice mail.