The Great Muffin Mystery

Have you seen the muffin man, the muffin man, the muffin man?
Have you seen the muffin man, that lives in Drury Lane?

I grew up in England (Gloucestershire) in the 1950s, and of course I learnt the nursery song - yet I'm sure I had no very clear idea what a "muffin" was. Somehow or other, I was lead to believe it rather like a crumpet (which was very familiar), yet definitely different. Over quite a few years of living in different parts of Britain (West Country, London, and Manchester) I began to realise quite how localised bakery terms are - the first shock came one day in London when I was visited by a sudden craving for a lardy. Half aware that I couldn't actually remember seeing any in our local bakery, I asked "Have you any lardies?" The response suggested they thought I might be from Mars (or Texas, or somewhere like that).

English muffins
"Safeway - Muffins - Delicious toasted with butter"

American muffins
"Tesco - American Style - Blueberry muffins"

"Warburtons - Family Bakers - Crumpets"

Well, what was the muffin man selling? Was it a flat, non-sweet, breadlike thing, or was it a sweet bun cooked from batter in a deep muffin tin? This all started in a discussion on the Honyaku mailing list about translations from British to American English in the US version of one of the Harry Potter books. In the original, a character is having tea with crumpets, but for American readers these have been turned into "English muffins". Now I do know the term "English muffin" because we've had them here in Japan, fairly recently, and yes, they are known as ingurisshu mafin in Japanese. But the fact that something is known any country as "English something" is very rarely a reliable indication that it really comes from England. It does seem that both types are well-known in the USA, as "English muffins" (flat) and just "muffins" (deep, sweet), but the question is whether the "English" sort is particularly English in origin. Doreen Simmons, who is a reliable British informant, insists that when she grew up in Nottinghamshire (about as long ago as I did) a "muffin" referred only to the sweet cake version, and moreover that having first met an "English muffin" in Tokyo she assumed it (or the name at least) was a Japanese invention. No-one came forward to say that where they grew up in England (or elsewhere in Britain), they were familiar with the other sort of muffin.

So during our trip to England this year (2000), I did some research. It's certainly easy to find the word, and my impression was that the most prominent use is in American-style fast-food outlets, for the sweet bun type. A few anecdotal enquiries suggested, though, that many people are aware there are two types, and the supermarkets soon produced some samples, as in the photos. The flat type are just called "muffins", while the sweet bun type usually attract some sort of "American style" label. It seems entirely possible that the original of the sweet bun type still exists in some part or parts of England, but I wasn't able to find it.

For reference, I got some crumpets as well. They are certainly more distinctive than "flat" muffins, particularly in their soft, rather rubbery, consistency. They are made from a batter, and in the cooking process bubbles (I suppose of carbon dioxide, since they include yeast) make these curious vertical "pores". It's also interesting that I remember my grandfather usually called crumpets "pikelets", and I was amazed to find pikelets in the supermarket too: strictly they appear to be a much thinner version of a crumpet. (Oh, and I ought to remind non-native speakers of British that "crumpet" has an extra, vulgar meaning, a non-count noun, as in "a bit of crumpet", meaning a sexually available woman.)

The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary (1933) has an interesting entry:

"A light, flat, circular, spongy cake, eaten toasted and buttered at breakfast or tea. Formerly (now [dialect]) applied to other kinds of tea-cake."

This seems to imply that the deep sweet type had become a minority animal (perhaps since its transfer to America).

Webidence is not so easy to collect, because most of it is text, and it's not always obvious which sort of muffin is referred to. But the impression that current popularity of the sweet type is an American import is supported by the high frequency of blueberry - that archetypally American of fruits - as a flavouring. Here's a typical example, in a description of a brasserie chain (Brazz) in the West Country:

"A graze menu, for those with time only to munch at the bar, runs to blueberry muffins, pickled quails' eggs or a club sandwich terrine."

Meanwhile, The (UK) Federation of Bakers gives the following description, explicitly describing "American sweet muffins" as a "newer product".

Rolls and Morning Goods

Morning goods are traditionally sold in the morning for consumption on the day they are baked. Modern technology, ingredients and packaging have improved the keeping quality of these products and now they can be purchased for consumption at any time of the day, or the next!

Some traditional British products include: rolls and baps, toasting products such as muffins, crumpets and pikelets, scones, teacakes, buns and other fruited products, hot plate products such as pancakes and griddle scones, waffles and potato cakes and not forgetting seasonal products such as hot cross buns.

Newer products include croissants, brioches, pain au chocolat (literally bread with chocolate!), bagels, American sweet muffins and other semi-sweet bread products.

Japan update

Japanese English muffins
Ingurisshu mafin in katakana

October 2000: Went round to our local Jusco department store, and found both "muffins" and "English muffins". Like so many Japanese bakery products, they suffer from a vinyl bondage complex, and just don't look as appetising as their English equivalents. The "English muffins" are a sort of Mother's Pride version, much softer and floppier, but still reasonably tasty once toasted.

Japanese non-English(?) muffins
Mafin in katakana