Tuesday, May 25, 2010

The Muffin Man

Do you know the muffin man, / The muffin man, the muffin man, / Do you know the muffin man, / He lives on Drury Lane?
Yes, I know—or I knew—the Muffin Man, though I'm not sure I knew his street address, or, if I did know it, that I had any idea where Drury Lane was. I learned of him from Pam Albert. She lived in a silver house down the street with a pond in the front yard that we called Pollywog Pond, since it was full of tadpoles.

From when we were two until we were seven, the three Albert sisters— Pam, Peggy, and Sally— babysat for my twin brother George and me. From them we learned about pollywogs and tadpoles, daddy long legs and inchworms, cattails and milkweed, the Milky Way and the Big Dipper. The Alberts all but adopted us. When we got lost in the woods behind our house, Mr. Albert, who cleaned and repaired furnaces for a living, lead the search party.

Though I loved all three Albert sisters, Pam was my favorite. She taught me the Muffin Man song, the first song I ever learned. Thanks to that song for me the Muffin Man rose to a position of mythic stature equal to that of Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy, while the simple lyric planted firmly and forever in my child's mind the image of a plump man in a white smock with matching puffy cap peddling his cart piled with steaming golden muffins, plump as their maker, down the street at dawn, ringing a bell with which he roused his customers from the depths of their sleep. As with most fairytale characters, there was something equal parts reassuring and foreboding about The Muffin Man, something to be desired mixed with something to be feared.

When I first heard the song I'd never seen, let alone eaten, a muffin. My Italian parents were still coming to grips with sliced Wonder Bread. Odds of a muffin materializing in the Selgin household were nill. Yet I could taste them in my mind, and even imagined their smell wafting through my bedroom window as the Muffin Man pushed his cart from house to house. Other children woke up craving waffles and Maypo; I woke up craving muffin.

Back then, in the early 1960's, muffins were much less common than they are today. Until late in the 19th century, what we today call a muffin didn't exist at all. The first recipe for a 'muffin' in print dates back only to 1879, in a book titled Housekeeping in Old Virginia, a recipe calling for a batter "the consistency of pound cake [baked] in snow-ball cups as soon as possible." As for the word "muffin," it dates back only as far as 1703, its origins uncertain, deriving most probably from the low German moofin, muffen, or muffe, meaning "small cake," though etymologists also suspect some connection to the Old French "moufflet," meaning "soft."

Though for a time nothing distinguished the American muffin from its English equivalent, as the two nations parted ways so did their recipes, with the English muffin remaining a flat, round, spongy, air-filled concoction prepared with yeast-leavened dough and cooked on a griddle, while the American version evolved into a sort of "quick bread" prepared from a sweet batter and baked in individual molds.

If anyone deserves credit for the American muffin, it should probably go to Professor Eben Horsford and George Wilson who invented baking powder in 1854. Before then housewives had to rely on much slower potash. Thanks to baking soda, muffins could be made quickly and easily, and thus became an ideal breakfast food. Unfortunately, as quickly as they were made, they grew stale, and thus were rarely seen outside of private kitchens until preservatives appeared in the 1950's. These early muffins were made from common grains—corn, oat, wheat bran—with nuts, raisins, and apple slices sometimes added to the batter. By the turn of the century, muffins had grown so popular in her 1898 Boston Cooking School Cook Book, Fannie Farmer provided no fewer than 15 recipes for them. By then baking pans with lozenge-shaped molds were often used, pans rendered obsolete in the 1950's, when paper muffin cups were invented; the paper cups in turn gave way to Teflon and other types of non-stick pans, some in elaborate shapes. Around the same time packaged muffin mixes became hugely popular, making the easy muffin even easier. Meanwhile entrepreneurs sought for muffins the franchise food eminence enjoyed by doughnuts and french fries. It was not to be. Though muffins never attained the dubious distinction of world's most popular fast food, by the the time Pam Albert taught me the Muffin Man song every diner in the country featured an array of them under a glass pastry dome. In such places muffins were as obligatory as Heinz ketchup bottles.

* * *

My first muffin is more memorable to me than my first non-innocent kiss (in fact I've forgotten my first kiss). It was at Caldor's department store, the 1960's equivalent of K-mart. At the front of the store was a counter where you could get sandwiches, ice cream sundaes, and other snacks. We were on our way out, my mother and brother and I, when I spotted it there, glowing under a glass dome—a lonesome golden corn muffin. It was late afternoon. The bright counter was deserted; the man behind it rinsing a stainless steel milkshake cup in his conical paper cap. I tugged at my mother's blouse. She shook her head: it would spoil my appetite for dinner. Please, I said. At last my mother relented. Out of the bargain my brother finagled a hot dog.

The counterman offered to warm the muffin for me, but I couldn't wait. Before I could stop him he cut it in half—not from the top down, but sideways, creating two hockey-puck like wafers. He served it to me on a small round plate edged with a green stripe. Even allowing for having been split in two, in shape it was unlike today's muffins. For starters it far more modest in size, three inches across at most and maybe two inches high, and lacking the bulbous, mushroom-like caps of current muffins. Instead, this muffin was nearly flat on top, with the subtlest rise at its center, and an even more subtle gradation forming a flange or brim at its circumference. From top to bottom it was a perfectly even, golden-brown, spongy in texture. Not wanting to mute its flavor with soda or chocolate milk, I ate it with a glass of water, ignoring the knife and fork the counterman had given me, choosing instead to tear it into bite-sized bits with my bare hands. Its grease coated my fingertips, so I was forced, forced to lick them following every bite. I ate with Zen slowness, wanting to savor every morsel, to prolong the experience, picking up crumbs and licking them one by one like flecks of gold off glossy, greasy fingers. At last my mother could no longer contain her impatience. She yanked me off the stool and dragged me—still licking my fingers—through the store's automatic doors and into the parking lot where her boat-like black Mercury waited. All this time the Muffin Man's song ran through my head.

Years later, when I was a struggling artist in New York City, muffins became my all-purpose food. I ate them for breakfast, lunch, and sometimes even for dinner. Corn muffins were my favorite. They were the perfect "starving artist" food: tasty, inexpensive, and filling—not terribly healthy, but not that unhealthy, either. And muffins offered something more than nutrition: the were a source of comfort, too. Their very shape suggests comfort: round and soft, like a mother's breast. Add warmth and sweetness and you get the full package. Other foods might have done more for me by way of vitamins and other nutrients, but few offered more solace. On my worst days, days permeated with gloom and doom, I'd step into a coffee shop, sit at the counter, and order a corn muffin toasted lightly with butter and a cup of coffee. No sooner would it be placed before me than the gloom would dissipate, replaced by something warm and reassuring, the sense that somehow things would be okay after all. How doomed can a world be with corn muffins in it?

Eventually my source of comfort turned against me. Having spent the better part of a decade eating practically nothing but corn muffins, I developed an allergy to them that left me bloated, feverish, and with epic headaches. I spent the next decade avoiding all foods with corn or corn syrup in them, meaning just about everything from pickles to coffee creamer.

Just as I forwent my beloved muffins, the rest of the country developed a mania for them. Suddenly—like the mushrooms they so resemble in shape—muffins sprang up everywhere: not just in diners, but in cafes, health food stores, even in posh restaurants. And just as suddenly they went from being a humble, working-class food to being trendy, gaudy and huge, pumped up to grapefruit size on muffin steroids. And where once they'd been simple concoctions of whole grain augmented with a sprinkling of raisins or nuts, suddenly muffins were made of everything from zucchinis to sour cream, from peanut butter to avocados. Granola muffins, cappuccino muffins, strudel muffins, applesauce muffins—muffins whose entire purpose in life seemed to be nothing less than denying their muffinhood. And just what, I ask you, distinguishes a chocolate muffin from what we used to call a cupcake? Take away the whole grains, add a ton of sugar and some frosting, and what have you got if not a cake by some other name?

And though a good muffin may be many things, a cupcake isn't one of them. The difference isn't merely semantic. Muffins are—or were—less sweet, and never frosted; some were even savory. They were meant to exist somewhere in the continuum between cake and bread. Still, I'd bear no grudge against alternative muffins if within their swollen ranks one could still find a classic corn or bran muffin. In fact those are the two types of muffins one is least likely to encounter these days. Except in diners (themselves a vanishing species) one isn't likely to find corn muffins at all. That the purveyors of postmodern muffins show such ignorance of—contempt for?—the prototype should annoy more people. It's one thing to come up with variations on a classic; it's another to do away with the original altogether. To those who like chocolate muffins, I say let them eat cupcakes. Only let me have my corn muffin, too.

Like most cries in the dark this one will go unanswered. Times change, and so must muffins, I guess. Soon my beloved corn muffin will have gone the way of ocean liners, locomotives, and other quaint relics of the past, resurrected every now and then as a museum piece or curiosity for the sake of a handful of nostalgic geezers. The future belongs to the young. And the future of muffins belongs, apparently, to cake eaters.

Meanwhile I still eat corn muffins wherever and whenever I can find them. And whenever I'm troubled by this changing world, I take solace in the lyrics of a song my babysitter taught me. Do I know the Muffin Man? Indeed I do.

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