Have you seen the Muffin Man?

 

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The number one rule of writing is, write what you know. Since the first novella I published is told from the point of view of a male retired cop, I guess I must be a rule breaker. I’m a curious person by nature, which is probably why I love the research that goes with writing something I don’t know. It makes telling the story more interesting when I can share some little nugget I learn with my readers.

I’m so curious that any mundane activity has the ability to get me to run to my computer to look something up. I do love the internet.

One morning I was making myself breakfast. I was just popping an English muffin into the toaster, when I started to wonder about the hole-filled breakfast food. Is the English muffin really English? Is it related to the crumpet? How did it come about? As soon as I could lick my fingers clean, I was on my laptop giving Google a work out.

The first article I found said the English muffin was indeed English. In Victorian times it was a food created from leftover bread and biscuit dough scraps along with mashed potatoes. The batter was poured on a hot griddle, creating light, crusty muffins for the servants. When the well-to-do upstairs discovered the tasty treat, it became a popular pastry, especially during tea time. It became so popular, that English muffin factories began to pop-up and men carrying the baked good to sell on wooden trays could be seen walking the streets. This is what the song “Do you know the muffin man…” refers to.

So I was slightly confused when the next link I clicked on claimed that the English muffin was not English, but an American invention. It turns out that the credit is given to Samuel Bath Thomas who immigrated from England in 1874. Thomas, who worked in a bread bakery, opened his own bakery in 1880, It was there that he took his knowledge and created the modern day, Americanized English muffin. It is a Thomas brand English muffin that started me on this quest. Thomas English muffins have since made their way back across the pond to Britain. Talk about full circle!

So, although the English muffin you buy in the store today was technically invented in America, it was done so by an Englishman who brought with him the knowledge and history of the muffin of Victorian England as well as the crumpet.

As for the crumpet, it is a very similar type biscuit credited to the Anglo Saxons, only it’s holes are on the outside, not the inside, so a crumpet is not split. Both are a griddle cake but unlike the English muffin the crumpet holes come from adding baking soda. Crumpets are made with milk, English muffins are not. The texture of a crumpet is spongier than the English muffin.

So here’s my conclusions based on what I learned. Crumpets were around forever. The British upper class favored them. The poor servants were hungry and invented their own version out of the bread dough scraps they could get from the kitchen. The aristocrats, not wanting the servants to have something they didn’t, started eating their “muffins.” Mr. Thomas, a baker from England, came over to America. He saw that we didn’t have anything similar, so he decided to take what he knew about making crumpets and muffins and invented the modern day English muffin that can be heated in a toaster.

I say the English muffin is indeed English. Just because I may put slightly different ingredients in my version of spaghetti sauce doesn’t mean that spaghetti sauce is American and not Italian. When we say a food is Italian, or Mexican, or English, we are talking about it’s origin, not just of a particular recipe, but of the food itself. It seems to me that what we call an English muffin today is just the progression any recipe goes through. Thomas did name his product an English muffin for a reason after all. Regardless of how it came to be, I can’t deny that those crags and crevices filled with melted butter and jam taste terrific!

Now for the french fry…not French at all. The french fry originated in Belgium, but that’s for another day.

 

Road Trip Day 10 and 11

Day 10 was a all day driving day. From Albuquerque we had driven to Amarillo, Texas for the night. From there we drove through the rest of Texas, Oklahoma, and Arkansas, finally spending the night in Tunica, Mississippi. Although we thought that this long leg across the panhandle of Texas and Oklahoma were going to be flat and boring, it turned out it was hilly and tree-lined. We could have been convinced we were back in Wisconsin.

Our only order of business once we arrived was to eat, maybe do a little gambling, and get some sleep. We ate at Paula Deen’s Buffet at Harrah’s Casino. We all agree it had to be the best buffet any of us have ever eaten at. But after eating grilled oysters, fried chicken, fried catfish, fried green tomatoes, cheesy grits, cheesy biscuits, and hoe cakes (just to name a few of the selections) I had worse indigestion than when I ate the spicy food in Albuquerque! It was worth it though.

We gambled a little (and actually won a little) then crashed for the night.

 

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Day 11 started with breakfast and a drive across the river into Memphis, Tennessee. Our first stop –  Graceland.

It’s funny how one can have false perceptions of the places they have never been. First, Graceland is tucked tightly into a pretty depressed neighborhood. In fact, if it weren’t for the iconic gates, and 101 large signs, you could drive right past it. It does have over 13 acres, but from the front entrance, that’s not obvious.

The Graceland Mansion, is certainly large, but by today’s standards, the rooms are small. One must also remember that Elvis lived in this home from 1957 until 1977, which leaves the decorating … let’s just say, if it wasn’t the home of the King, and it was just a house, almost any new owner would start gutting and updating the interior. But it IS the home of Elvis, so it’s unusual, outdated decor takes on a whole new meaning, and we couldn’t help but wander through it with a sense of awe.

 

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I think Charles Dickens would have liked Elvis. In a way they had quite a few similarities.

Elvis, like Charles, came from poor beginnings. Vernon Presley, like John Dickens, wandered from job to job, without ambition. Both fathers spent time in jail.

This affected both Elvis and Charles Dickens, compelling them to do better. Both men were quirky and enjoyed music and entertaining. Both were driven in their careers. Mr. Dickens and Elvis  were both a bit obsessive compulsive, and both would rearrange hotel rooms to suit their obsessive needs.

Both worried about the success of their careers, pushing themselves to the point of poor health.

Although cast in singing roles in movies, Elvis, like Charles Dickens wanted to be taken seriously as an actor.

Just like Mr. Dickens, when sales started to fall,  Elvis  decided to do something to boost his career. In Dickens case it was a Christmas book, for Elvis it was a Christmas television special.

Finally, despite failing health, and those around them imploring that they take a break, both men insisted on pushing themselves to embark on a tour of live performances, which inevitably added to the stresses that eventually ended their lives.

So, although time and culture made them very different people (I can’t imagine how Elvis’ gyrating hips would have caused an uproar in Victorian England) in essence they were in many ways the same.

Back to Graceland. Here are a few pictures from inside the mansion.

 

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This first picture is the living room.

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This is the kitchen, as I mentioned, not overly large by today’s standards of enormous granite-covered islands and restaurant sized stoves.

 

 

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The ever famous “Jungle Room.”

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This is the last piano that Elvis ever played. He performed “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain” for his cousin, Billy Smith and Billy’s wife, Jo just hours before his death.

 

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The resting place of “The King” is in his meditation garden, alongside his mother, father, and grandmother. There is also a memorial plaque for his twin brother, Jesse, who was stillborn. I’ve since found out that just one week before our visit, Sir Paul McCartney was here and left a guitar pick on Elvis’ grave.

 

After departing Graceland, we made another pilgrimage of sorts. We live in the Waukesha, Wisconsin area and are very proud to be the home of Les Paul, as well as the site of Gibson Guitar Town for the second year running (only Waukesha and Los Angeles have ever had that privilege). So we couldn’t go to Memphis and not stop in at the Gibson factory.

 

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Although this plant is not the one that produces the Les Paul guitar, it was fascinating to see how each guitar is made individually, by hand. There are no stencils used –  all paint jobs are done free hand which means there are no two alike.

Also, they do not mass produce any guitars. They don’t start building a guitar until there is an order placed. Each guitar is meticulously inspected. If there is any flaw, even if it’s undetectable to the average person, the flaw is either repaired, or the guitar (even if it’s complete) is cut up on the band saw. There are no seconds.

 

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Our last stop of the day was Beale Street. On the way, we drove past the famous Sun Records, where Elvis got his start.

 

Beale Street, for those who don’t know, is a street that is known as the home of the Memphis Blues. It has been frequented by blues legends such as Louis Armstrong, Muddy Waters, Albert King, Memphis Minnie, B.B. King, Rufus Thomas, and Roscoe Gordon, to name a few.

It  now has the distinction of having another famous visitor! I have to believe that Mr. Dickens would have enjoyed the intensity of the place and the liveliness of the people here.

 

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We arrived just as a parade, or so we thought, was making it’s way down the street. A gentleman, overhearing us wonder out loud as to what the occasion was, told us it was the funeral procession for Silky O’Sullivan, a well loved and respected club owner. We just happened to be standing next to his club.

 

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When Beale Street says farewell to one of it’s own, it’s anything but a somber affair. What we were lucky enough to stumble upon was a celebration of  life – Mardi Gras style!

Beale Street is filled with music, food, and an energy that is tangible.

The smell of BBQ is enough to make your nose twitch and your mouth water. The soul-filled riffs of street musicians fill your ears. The spirit and vitality of the people and the place fill your soul. Beale Street was  not created by someone to be a tourist attraction. As my husband said – what’s so great, and feels so special about Beale Street is that this place is real.

Of course we had to sample the flavors of Beale Street and sat down to eat  a platter filled with barbecue ribs, smoked chicken, pulled pork, beans, coleslaw and onion rings at “The Pig”. It was a beautiful sunny day, so we sat outside where we could hear live blues being played right across the street. DSC00355a

After stuffing ourselves, we wandered up and down the street, browsing the shops. Of course we had to stop in at Schwab’s which is a Beale Street mainstay. The general store is the only remaining original business on Beale Street.

Established in 1876, the store has never lost it’s charm. We strolled the creaky wood floors and stairs to check out all of it’s quirky merchandise. I purchased two small charm bags, one for creativity, and one for success, from the Hoodoo section of the store. When on Beale Street, it can’t be wrong to buy myself some good juju!

Our last stop, was to get some fresh beignets . When I say fresh, I mean fresh! We watched as just enough dough for our order was made from scratch. Skilled fingers mixed, then kneaded the dough. Hot from the fryer and dusted in powdered sugar, they were the perfect finish to our visit to Beale Street!