Don’t expect rational clarity from me. The whole muffin thing is a Gordian knot, and if you try slicing through it all you end up with is crumbs.
When I was a kid, there were muffins and there were crumpets (bear with me, we’ll be coming back to crumpets) and there were buns of all sorts, and they were all effectively bread, on that side of the baker’s aisle. Over there, on the other side, were cakes. (Actually, most people made their own cakes; it was considered a little déclassé to buy one from a shop. For parties, my mum would make fairy cakes or butterfly cakes, little individual treats where you got a whole one to yourself and didn’t have to share.)
Muffins were probably my least favourite in the list of bready buns. We cut them in half and toasted them and slathered them with butter, but I was never quite sure how much I liked them. They had a particular flavour, and something of a texture too – wheat-bran, perhaps, or some such in the dough.
But I never knew there was any question about identity or the One True Muffin, until I was hanging out with Geoff the Canadian American, in my early adulthood, and he cheerfully told me that in the US crumpets were known as English muffins. Now obviously, dear readers, you know and I know that was never true; but I was young and blighted by prejudice and gullibility, and what is more I knew that the French for French horn was cor anglais [which isn’t true either, as it happens], so I spent the next great many years believing that the poor Americans couldn’t tell the difference between a crumpet and a muffin.
And in the meantime, of course, I encountered blueberry muffins, which were quite clearly a cake and not even shaped like a muffin, which only confirmed me in my misunderstanding of the US misunderstanding of a splendidly English breadstuff. Which I didn’t like very much and hadn’t eaten for decades, but hey. I’d go to war if I had to, on behalf of the One True Muffin.
Aaand then I came to the US, and found that yes, they do eat a lot of English muffins (we will say nothing further of the cake, which is still not a muffin and need not detain us longer), and no, they were not at all a crumpet – but were they really a muffin?
In honesty, I’m still undecided. They do look kinda like a muffin, and they do serve that same bready function (tho’ the tendency to make a sandwich of them, or otherwise to smother them with other food, is fundamentally wrong: like crumpets, they should be eaten with butter and nothing) – but they absolutely don’t have that flavour I remember from my childhood, and I don’t end up picking bits of bran out of my teeth. You could argue that that’s just a result of the commodification and mass-production of bread, and that nothing else shop-bought tastes like it used to anyway; and I can do nothing but nod and sigh and agree with you, and go off to bake my own. Which I probably will do, now that I’ve written a whole damn rant about it. A rant without a conclusion, moreover: at the moment my instinct is to say that the English muffin is the Brat Farrar of the bakery, making a convincing claim to a position to which it is not in fact entitled. It looks right but it smells wrong, and in the end it’s deceitful, but we kind of want to cheer for it anyway, because what else is there?