Do You Know The Muffin Man

“Muffin…a term connected with moufflet, an old French word applied to bread, meaning soft….The word muffin first appeared in print in the early 18th century, and recipes began to be published in the middle of the 18th century. There has always been some confusion between muffins, crumpets, (aka, pikelets), both in recipes and in name. Muffin’ usually meant a breadlike product (sometimes simply made from whatever bread dough was available), as opposed to the more pancake-like crumpets…Muffins were most popular during the 19th century, when muffin men traversed the town streets at teatime, ringing their bells. In the 1840s the muffin-man’s bell was prohibited by Act of Parliament because many people objected to it, but the prohibition was ineffective…” Oxford Companion to Food, Alan Davidson [Oxford University Press:Oxford] 1999(p. 517)

muffin row Blueberry Quark Muffins
What exactly was the muffin man selling? Even those raised in the UK struggle to answer that question, unsure whether “muffin” meant English muffin, crumpet, or “bun” – think Hot Cross Buns, higher rise and sweeter in flavor. Even more interesting, are discussions as to whether there was ever a bread called “muffin” in Merry Old England.

Whatever the form or name of muffin man’s items, I was certain an 18th-Century bread would have been leavened with sourdough lactic acid fermentation

The synergism also creates lactic acid, acetic acid and ethanol (alcohol). Lactic acid contributes to better digestibility of the bread and gives it a unique flavor, while acetic acid adds flavor and is a natural preservative, lowering the pH level of the bread product and retarding mold growth. Ethanol is a byproduct of fermentation and creates that wonderful smell of freshly baked bread! The Power of Sourdough Bread

The science of fermentation’s microbial life, is fascinating, especially its abilities to neutralize toxins, release nutrients from the grains, create naturally-occurring digestive enzymes, and increase vitamin and mineral availability by 300-500%. Sourdough food preparation methods are skills I’ve been trying to recapture over the last dozen years, abhorring all-things-processed and “modern”, instead using traditional techniques.

Therein lies the rub. What is “modern? “Traditional”? The more I studied food history, I recognized my view had been myopic, too content to view within-reach generations of my family as practicing “traditional” cooking and baking methods.

20th Century

Beyond frozen bread dough, boxed cakes, the industrialization of food….

19th Century

Back to the 1840’s invention of baking powder, perfect for non-acidic doughs and batters, resulting in modern, airy cakes….

Then on to 1815 with Guy-Lussac’s discovery of yeasts converting simple sugar, glucose, to ethnol; followed by Pasteur isolating individual living-cell yeasts (Saccaromyces cerevisia) from lactic acid fermentation which is what lead to the development of commercial baker’s yeast, in a time period bread bakers knew as the “Golden Age”.

18th Century

Even further back in time, Napoleon Bonaparte’s late-18th Century army was fortified with canned food in glass bottles much like wine, a process perfected 15 years later with the first canning factory on British soil.

In the early 18th Century, baking soda, mixed with buttermilk, (sodium bicarbonate), revolutionized bread-baking, turning what had been a slow fermentation process into “quick breads” – today’s dump-stir-bake biscuits, muffins and tea breads.

It’s no wonder the Parliament tried to quiet the 1840’s muffin man’s bell! Perhaps, they were all Foodies at heart, recognizing that time-honored traditions were being threatened by not only “fast food”, but also “junk food”.

What quick breads saved in time, and satisfying hunger faster than sourdough methods, they lost in health benefits, for reasons listed earlier. They also lost their flavor, no longer complex orchestrations of synergistic microbes, but instead, lacking, requiring sugars almost equal to the amount of flour in weight – unheard of until quick breads were discovered – with sugar which is a poor imitator of real flavor.

Is it any surprise we have epidemic cases of Celiac Disease, a food intolerance to wheat gluten, a point finally being addressed by 21st Century researchers recognizing the values of sourdough fermentation in its ability to generate lactic acid bacteria to decrease the risk of gluten contamination for those suffering from Celiac Disease, an increasingly common disease which is a food intolerance thought to be caught by gluten.

Those who suffer with IBD and IBS in our fast-paced modern society are told to eat more grains, but few know how to properly prepare the grains, through the process of fermentation, so they’re more easily digestible. The result is more strain and stress on the digestive system, as well as the stripping away of the body’s enzymes required to break grains down, further weakening the digestive system.

Grain, improperly prepared, is unhealthy. Grain, properly prepared, restores health.

It’s time to move back to foods of our ancestors, for whom most of us will never know their names, but we can discover the benefits of good health they enjoyed when eating properly-prepared foods, before “modern wisdom” created chaos in our food system and nutrition.