To See the Food World in an English Muffin

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Did you catch the front page story in the New York Times on Saturday about Thomas' English muffins?

On the surface, it was a tale of corporate secrets and intrigue, and a good tale at that. But what I loved about it—and why I bring it up—is that it was also an affirmation that a very particular aspect of an otherwise ordinary food can make it magical, irresistible, addictive. It showed how much the details count, and how specifically and painstakingly the details are sometimes achieved: exact dough composition, exact baking temperature, etc., etc.

In other words it was a tribute to food obsessiveness, in terms of both the making and the eating. (Here's a link to the story, by the way.)

I've always liked Thomas' muffins, and I've liked them for those very nooks and crannies that their maker lords over rival muffin manufacturers. (The Times story was about how carefully the Thomas' folks guard the recipe that gives rise to the nooks and crannies.) Can the topography of a muffin half really matter so much? Oh yes. It makes the textural experience of a toasted Thomas' unique, but more than that it governs an uneven butter distribution that's the real clincher. Butter spread on a hot Thomas' muffin slides down a jagged edge and gathers in what looks like a minuscule tidal pool, and when your bite takes in that pool, you get a rush of liquid richness more intense than you'd expected. The decadence takes you by delicious surprise.

It's probably good to remember, at a time when we're exalting all things artisanal, that "mass-market" isn't always and necessarily awful.

Am I mooning too much over a mass-market muffin? Maybe. But it's probably good to remember, at a time when we're exalting all things artisanal, that "mass-market" isn't always and necessarily awful. At least not from a gustatory (as opposed to ethical) perspective. Like Hellman's mayo and Heinz ketchup, Thomas' muffins are mighty impressive for what they are. And like Hellman's and Heinz, they engender fierce, fierce loyalty. That was one of my thoughts as I read the Times piece, and it was another prompt for this post.

The tight lid that the makers of Thomas' muffins keep over the recipe and production process reflects the tight allegiances that we as eaters form with our preferred foods. When I was a kid, if one of my brothers or my sister or my father opened the bread drawer in the morning to discover that my mother had for some reason purchased an English muffin other than Thomas', a groan went up. Maybe even a wail. A hope had been dashed; an anticipation of a particular and dependable pleasure had gone unrewarded. And in the Bruni family, no letdown was as painful as a food letdown.

Speaking of letdowns, I had a lobster roll over the weekend. I was by the sea, and there were seafood shacks lining the road, and it seemed criminal not to stop at one at some point and have both a lobster roll and some fried clams.

The fried clams were fine, mainly because they weren't strips, but rather whole clams, bellies included. Belly inclusion is crucial. (Can I get that stitched onto a throw pillow?)

The lobster roll, though, was a bust. Instead of chunks of lobster meat, there were thin, stringy strands of it: it had been shredded, more or less, before being mixed with similarly shredded cabbage and celery and the like. The result was a braid-cum-mash that made it impossible, visually, to see exactly how much lobster was there. (That was the goal and point, I think.)

As I registered the lobster roll's general blandness, I realized that two out of three times, I regret getting a lobster roll, and that the lobster roll, like the street-vendor pretzel, is one of those foods that's usually more pleasurable in theory than in practice. The idea of the lobster roll most often trumps the reality of the lobster roll.

Those of us who love great lobster and have tried at least a few dozen lobster rolls in our lives have eaten some sublime ones, with tender HUNKS of flavorful lobster meat that weren't diluted with too much dressing, too many sidekicks. We got lobster, glorious lobster, without work, in big mouthfuls. And the memory of that keeps us going back for more.

But the serendipitous lobster roll, ordered and chosen at a random place, without prior research or reliable recommendations from discerning friends, typically disappoints. And it disappoints at a high price point: insult upon injury. It's as if many purveyors of lobster rolls figure that a smattering of lobster, a buttery roll/bun, and an iconic phrase are enough. No real effort or merit necessary.

The fried clam, in contrast, never bums me out as much. It's cheaper. And whatever else it does or doesn't have going for it, it's fried.

This article also appears on bornround.com.

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Frank Bruni was the restaurant critic for The New York Times from June 2004 to September 2009. He is the author of Born Round: A Story of Family, Food, and a Ferocious Appetite. Learn more at bornround.com. More

Frank Bruni was named restaurant critic for The New York Times in April 2004. Before that, he was the newspaper's Rome bureau chief, a White House reporter, the lead correspondent covering George W. Bush's 2000 presidential campaign, and a frequent contributor to the New York Times Magazine. His latest book, Born Round: A Story of Family, Food, and a Ferocious Appetite, is now out in paperback. To learn more about Born Round and ask questions about the book, click here.

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