As an Englishman and avid consumer of bread related products, I was shocked to my very core recently to read that ‘English’ muffins were actually invented in the US only 100 years ago! The author of the article (published last year) claims that they were derived from the equally delectable British crumpet goes so far as to say that ‘Until the 1980s, our English muffins were virtually unknown in Great Britain’. As a child of the 1980s myself, I couldn’t personally contradict this, though without sending panicked messages to friends and relatives, I felt sure that they would remember them going further back.
The thing is, having tried the utterly delicious Thomas’ English Muffins on trips to the US, I could almost believe this. They are far, far nicer than even the best of our own, crispy yet chewy, with a strong taste and full of lovely holes. Could it be true, I thought? Could the ‘English’ muffin, like the ‘Scotch’ egg, actually be a foreign interloper? After I’d re-evaluated my very existence, I had a thought. Hang on, I said to myself, why would anyone market a product as ‘English’ to (among others) other British immigrants if it didn’t previously exist? What about ‘The Muffin Man’, a folk song dating to at least 1820? Was it really about American-style muffins? I set to work on my usual first recourse, Google Books, and discovered that there were plenty of references that pre-date Thomas’s efforts to both ‘crumpets’ and ‘muffins’ (notably, one of Dickens’ books). Despite the article’s claims, they were clearly different things, quite far back into the 19th century. Ironically, I couldn’t find mention of the crumpet before about 1800, so if anything, the crumpet and pikelet might actually be derivatives of the muffin (which might explain why we no longer have holes in our muffins – see below).
Digging a bit deeper, I found actual period muffin recipes dating back to the 18th century, the earliest being ‘The Art of Cookery, Made Plain and Easy’ by Hannah Glasse (or, “A Lady” as she appears on the frontispiece!), first published in 1747. This makes very clear that the same basic bread product was being made well over a century before Thomas set foot in the US, and quite possibly before that. The oldest recipe even mentions that they should be ‘like honey-comb’ inside, just like Thomas’. There were a couple of references that described muffins as being a form of oatcake, but it’s obvious that many muffins were made with wheatflour, and the title of the 1750s recipe shows that the type of flour was interchangeable.
Having effectively debunked the offending article, this was a bittersweet moment, because without exception, present-day British English muffins DO NOT have ‘nooks and crannies’. Our crumpets have stolen them all. Which is, frankly, a national disaster. Our English muffins are good America, but yours are even better. It was at this point that I discovered that someone had already written up the history of the English muffin. I couldn’t find a transcript of John Thorne’s self-published pamphlet, but I did find this article, which outlines the contents (and provides a recipe, happily).
Why would the article claim that you couldn’t buy muffins prior to the 1980s in the UK? Either they’re plain wrong, or *supermarkets* weren’t selling them until then. If so, it’s meaningless, because until the 1980s supermarkets were nowhere near as dominant as they are today, and local bakers as well as home cooks would have been making their own muffins. They were a staple snack food that transcended class, being a high-calorie working class convenience food sold in the street that became a dainty teatime treat for the well-to-do.
So the English muffin really was an ENGLISH muffin by 1880 when Thomas started his bakery. By this time the muffin in the Americas had evolved into an oven-baked cake (just as ‘biscuits’ had). So the ‘English’ prefix was added to differentiate the parallel product of the same name.
None of which changes the uncomfortable fact that American English muffins are by far the best!
[Edited to add – a photo of Thomas’ own bakery cart on their website – http://www.thomasbreads.com/about-us – and backed up by period trade directories, shows that Thomas advertised both ‘English Muffins’ and ‘London Crumpets’ as separate products. Clearly New Yorkers were not swayed by a bit of crumpet…]