What’s so American About a Blueberry Muffin?

There are certain cynics out there, most of them European pastry chefs and New York Times food writers, who claim that the blueberry muffin is the only real contribution the New World has made to the global (and when they say that they mean European) baking tradition. The entire idea is preposterous of course, since along with so-so blueberry muffins you can also find plenty of limp chocolate chip cookies and saggy brownies tucked into the ghetto sections of Parisian pastry cases. These of course are only the “greatest hits” of North American baking. The contributions of New World home bakers, being the most creative and prolific the world has ever seen, are legion. Layer cakes, open-topped fruit pies, quick breads and biscuits leap to mind. And then there’s just about anything made with corn meal.

So then I suppose the real question is, given all that, why has the blueberry muffin of all things become the emblem of New World (and specifically American) baking? A large part of the answer lies in the fact that blueberry muffins are quick breads, which are very American sorts of devices. By that of course I mean that muffins are leavened with baking soda and/or powder, common ingredients in America due to — and I’ve written extensively on this before — the abundance of wood in North America. They’re also mostly made by home bakers, which is again very New World since most sweet baking on the continent was done, and still is done, by professionals. The last part of the answer, I think, resides in the fact that blueberries are a New World fruit. Enjoyed by American Indians all along the Eastern seaboard for millennia before the settlers ever arrived, they have to this day a certain authentic caché on the continent.

But now that I think about it, the continental baking tradition doesn’t really have anything quite like a muffin: a small, single-serving sweet cake that’s baked in a mold. The closest analogous thing I can think of is the English muffin, the American muffin’s direct ancestor. But more on that next week.

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