I was in my local Kroger the other day, leisurely perusing the bread aisle, when I happened upon the “English Muffin,” something I haven’t eaten since I was a kid. In my mind English Muffins are associated with blackberry preserves and a healthy breakfast—my mother was a big fan of them—but I had never liked them as much as the other kind of muffin. And I started to think, what’s the deal with these muffins? So, naturally, I did a little research.
The American muffin is shaped like a cupcake, fits in the palm, and is typically sweet and cake-like in quality. The English muffin, on the other hand, is a round, thin, yeast-leavened bread usually served sliced horizontally, toasted, and buttered. Besides typically being served for breakfast, these foods don’t have a whole hell of a lot in common for two things sharing the term “muffin.”
A brief history of the muffin: English muffins are thought to date back to 10th or 11th century Wales (not England). Muffin recipes for English-style muffins first began to appear in print in the mid-18th century and by the 19th century Muffin Men walked the streets of England at tea time carrying trays of hot muffins on their heads (this hilarious practice resulted in the children’s rhyme “Do You Know the Muffin Man?”). American-style muffins didn’t come about until the 18th century, when a form of potash was discovered to create carbon dioxide in batter, allowing it to rise. Potash was later replaced with baking powder.
Moofin, first used in 1703, was derived from the Low German Muffen, the plural of Muffe meaning a small cake. This etymological derivation seems to line up well with the American version of the muffin. However, the French word moufflet, specifically meaning soft as it applies to bread, is perhaps more relevant to the English muffin, which has a much more bread-like quality than the cake-like American muffin.
Interestingly, three states have adopted official state muffins: Minnesota has adopted the blueberry muffin, Massachusetts in 1986 adopted the corn muffin, and in1987 New York adopted the apple muffin.
So I guess muffins are a pretty big deal in America. I know they are to me. But I have to wonder, why is it that Americans always have to make their own version of everything?
Jennifer Schrauth is earning her MFA at Virginia Tech.