Opinion: Do you know the muffin man?

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There is a new show on the History Channel called “The Food That Built America.” Each episode takes an edible item like pizza, burgers or breakfast cereal and presents the history of the cutthroat competition among the food barons who developed these products. My favorite historical reenactment was when the founder of Hershey’s chocolate was firing an employee who then threatened to open his own candy company. “Yeah, good luck with that, Mr. Reese,” Milton Hershey said.

I’d like to see the history of the English muffin. My mom used to insist English muffins were to be carefully pried apart with a fork, so that both halves revealed their celebrated nooks and crannies. Careful toasting produced the legendary crispy texture.

As any muffin maven knows, the jagged terrain provides a nesting place for butter, cream cheese or jam. My father routinely hacked away at Thomas’ offerings with a kitchen knife, and when Joan saw the half-eaten evidence on Dad’s plate, she’d scold him. Arnie would then use the same knife to split an Oreo cookie into two cream-covered halves, a clear violation of the twist-and-detach rule, still operative today.

I don’t know the difference between a nook and a cranny. I always figured that the 80-year-old recipe for this highly touted topography was a carefully guarded corporate secret, like the undisclosed ingredients of Coca-Cola. But the plot thickens, or rises — pick your bakery metaphor. Turns out that Thomas’ English Muffins is currently owned by a Mexican company, Bimbo Bakeries, which sounds like a south-of-the-border Hooters. In reality, Bimbo is one of the largest food conglomerates in the world. I think they make almost everything except frozen tacos and burritos, which they farm out to the Chinese.

Bimbo and Hostess are now in a legal battle over Thomas’ recipe for nooks and crannies. Make no mistake, this has schmear campaign written all over it. In the true spirit of English muffins, both sides will be equally represented. The jury may have a tough time, so I expect a split decision.

I have learned that the history of the craggy surface was anything but smooth scaling. Several notable bumps along the way perplexed the inventor, Samuel Bath Thomas. Some of his early versions were disasters, including the Moon Muffin, which was all nooks and no crannies. Another early snafu was naming the muffin after himself. No one knew where to put the apostrophe. Thomas’? Thomases’? Thomas’s?

The Bimbo company is always searching for ways to increase visibility. I hope they don’t try to sell their products to fairgoers this summer. I love Indiana State Fair food as much as the next guy, and a deep-fried English muffin doesn’t sound quite Hoosier enough to me.


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