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When Will the Humble Corn Muffin Get a Little Respect?

The corn muffin is one of the tastiest, easiest to prepare, most versatile, most patriotic, and most reliable snacks in the spectrum of American food, and yet no one seems to care.
Photo via Flickr user Emily Carlin

Walk into any artisan bakery across America and it's safe to say that some of the snacks inside have been wildly overhyped. Donuts, in general, are old news, and without a proper topping have the penchant to be pretty tasteless. Croissants? I suppose they're great if you enjoy eating the lightest possible food with the most amount of calories. The chocolate chip cookie, while a classic, has to be baked to perfection, because Lord knows there's a ton of terrible variations out there. However, there is one snack that—much like schoolteachers, or the acting career of Steve Buscemi—has never gotten its proper due.


The corn muffin is one of the tastiest, easiest to prepare, most versatile, most patriotic, and most reliable snacks in the spectrum of American food, and yet no one seems to care. It's one of those things we as a people take for granted, though it's always been around as either a toasty breakfast or a filling side dish. Much like a loyal dog, it's there for us no matter how much it's disrespected.

You'll never see corn muffins displayed prominently in a bakery, but rather off to the side, an afterthought compared to the chocolate-chip muffin or blueberry-lavender scone. As much as it tries, even its goddamn golden color can't catch our collective attentions.

Caroline Fidanza, owner of Williamsburg, Brooklyn's popular sandwich spot Saltie (and author of a cookbook by the same name) seems to agree with me. "I've been a lifelong fan of the corn muffin," Fidanza says during a rare lull at the shop. "It's true there's not a lot of hype for them."

Like many bakeries across New York and the United States, Saltie sells their own variation of the corn muffin, and it's an unsung hero of their menu. Saltie's version is a honey corn muffin, and besides the aforementioned gob of honey, it's made with olive oil, butter, and the all-important cornmeal. "The cornmeal needs to be coarse and able to absorb the added liquids," says Fidnaza of the recipe, which she borrowed from a long-shuttered bake shop and has been making for many years. "We use locally sourced cornmeal from upstate New York. [It's] a lot finer. I have to slap my hand to not grab and eat one every time I do an early morning baking shift."


Despite the care Saltie gives their corn muffin, which are slightly sweet and very moist, Fidanza concedes that they don't fly off the shelves as fast as the cafe's other tasty inventory. "It's a funny thing that it doesn't sell well, because if we ever take it off or change it, people feel deeply disappointed," she explains. "For the most part, I think it comes down to my personal affection for it. Everyone on staff loves it too. Having it in the pastry case is a welcoming thing and I think it's a way to attract a customer that may be put off by the esoteric nature of our menu."

One of the more notable aspects of the corn muffin is that the country is divided on how it should taste—unlike, say, the aforementioned chocolate chip cookie, which is typically prepared in much the same way across the nation.

North of the Mason-Dixon line, corn muffins tend to be sweet and cake-like, and are largely served for breakfast. Meanwhile, in the South, they're not as sweet or heavily leavened, and tend to be more dense. It's also most commonly served as a side dish for a bigger meal, like a barbecue dinner. (Could this have been a contributing factor in the Civil War? Worth looking into.)

When it comes down to it, the corn muffin is just a riff on cornbread, which, according to the Culinary Institute of America's Associate Dean of Culinary Specializations Howie Velie, is a further extension of the age-old foods of American Indians. "Going back several thousand years, corn was actually first domesticated in Mexico," Velie explains of its origins. "It then spread all over the Americas and the Indians started mashing it up, so they basically had sort of a corn cake they ate. When the colonists got here, however, they didn't like corn at first—they thought it was weird. Eventually, they turned it into the European-style corn bread we know today by adding a leavener, which the indigenous people didn't do."


But the colonists did a lot of things that lost favor over the years. (Burning people at the stake, for one.) How did cornbread, and later corn muffins, become such a ubiquitous part of Americana?

"It's an easy thing to make, which makes sense to prepare it for breakfast," points out Velie. "But it's a much bigger deal here than anywhere else. All things come and go, and all of our food items in the US move in cycles. Fifteen years ago, donuts weren't nearly as trendy as they are now."

Could this mean that a corn muffin renaissance could be upon us? Instead of cupcake and cookie shops dotting the land, could we possibly see a—gasp—corn muffin shop?

Probably not, but the closest thing to that happening has to be the growing influence of Dunkin' Donuts. They're arguably the biggest seller of corn muffins in the United States, with about 8,000 shops around the country, and each has one of those peculiar metal baskets devoted to them. Even more incredibly, they're not that bad.

Chef Heidi Curry is the Senior Manager of Bakery Research and Development at Dunkin' Donuts and spoke to me about why thousands of Dunkin's carry the things. "It's safe to say that the corn muffin is a classic," she says, noting how versatile it is. "Our guests enjoy them both in the morning and throughout the day." As for their ubiquity, Curry points towards the corn muffin's versatility. "They can be eaten on their own, warmed, with butter or jelly, or as a side with a barbecue dish." Chef Curry couldn't divulge how Dunkin' Donuts makes their muffins or how well they sell, but when it comes to baked goods and fast food, maybe some things are better left unsaid.

Back in Williamsburg, Saltie's Fidanza says she now has a renewed interest in the corn muffin thanks to our lively chat. "It's been on our menu for five-and-a-half years, and this conversation cements that I'll keep it."

And with that, the corn muffin finally gets a little respect.