Have You Seen the Muffin, Man?

"Cupcakes will be out and muffins will be in," a Central Market spokeswoman promised me in a recent e-mail heralding the grocery store's newest line of baked goods. "You heard it here first!"

I'm all for dethroning cupcakes, but haven't muffins already had their moment? Even if Central Market's muffins are as moist and healthy as the company claims, it seems unlikely a muffin made with balsamic-soaked strawberries and chevre could stimulate a craze to rival the muffin madness that erupted in the mid-1980s.

Muffins have been around for nearly as long as hearth tenders have had access to flour, yeast and heat. In 1747, Hannah Glase instructed readers of The Art of Cookery to "mix up your dough" and then "pull it into little pieces about as big as a large walnut."

Had Glase only advised adding bran to muffins, she might have avoided the financial woes that landed her in debtor's prison a decade later. The Battle Creek Toasted Corn Co. -- eventually renamed the Kellogg Co. -- in 1916 introduced its All-Bran cereal, selling enough boxes with an ad campaign promoting the health benefits of All-Bran muffins to carry the company through the Depression.

In 1936, the same year Kellogg's sent representatives bearing free samples and muffin recipe books on a door-to-door distribution mission, a typical advertisement appeared in newspapers across the country:

"For months, Jim vaguely realized something was wrong with him," the copy explained. "Tasks that he used to take in stride had become a grind...Worst of all, it showed in his work."

What Jim needed, according to the ad, was an All-Bran muffin: "Sluggish days are often due to common constipation. This ailment has helped to sidetrack many a promising career...The answer is to get 'bulk' back in your diet."

Americans' hunger for constipation cures apparently subsided in the following decades, but bran reappeared in the '80s, hailed as a potential antidote for high cholesterol. Muffin sales surged.

"Muffin mania," sniffed a Knight-Ridder reporter in 1987. "The way Americans have become so mad about muffins, you would think they were something new, hatched in California a la designer pizzas. Everywhere you look -- the bakery, the doughnut shop, the premium cookie counter, the freezer case, the packaged dessert mix aisle -- muffins are taking over."

But most shoppers didn't have to bother with bakeries and freezer cases, since the fad spurred a spike in muffin shops. Although none achieved the fame of the fictional "Top of the Muffin to You!", Elaine's brainchild in a 1997 Seinfeld episode, bakeries dedicated to "yuppie doughnuts" were as ubiquitous as video stores in trendy neighborhoods.

In 1989, at the peak of the fad, The New Yorker ran a cartoon of a health-seeker leaning a ladder against a mountainous muffin.

"The cartoon reflects the idiotic lengths to which some people have gone in an effort to ingest enough oat bran to lower their cholesterol," The New York Times' Marion Burros helpfully explained.

What really made Burros mad was the common misperception that if bran muffins were healthy, all muffins must be healthy -- even the ones loaded with sugar and topped with nuts. While enough eaters got wise to muffins' true colors to stem the fad, many dieters still maintain muffins are good for them. In 1999, an 85-year old diabetic sued a Delray Beach muffin shop that was exposed for selling fat-free, sugar-free muffins made with fat and sugar.

"Skeptical customers had frequently questioned the claims, but ate the muffins nonetheless because they were delicious," The Associated Press reported.

Central Market's bakers are especially proud of the taste of their new muffins, which are made with a buttermilk batter. New varieties include pecan sour cream; pear ginger; fig and star anise and banana nut granola. There are "more coming each week," a release says, but -- as of yet -- there's no talk of bran.