Kinda muffins, kinda not
During my recent dive into historical breakfast dishes, I was fully prepared to run into plenty of terms I'd never heard before. Frumenty was new to me; it's a porridge-like preparation that's been around since at least the 14th century. I'd known vaguely of koumiss, a fermented horse milk beverage, because James A. Garfield used it to treat his troublesome gut, but I was surprised by its semi-popularity as a curative health food in the late 1800s. Kornlet, a canned green corn pulp, also took me by surprise, although it was apparently commonplace enough in the first half of the 20th century that most cookbooks seemed to take its availability for granted. And, curiously, in many early-20th century menus, alongside muffins, I found items called gems. Page after page, menu after menu included all manner of gems—graham gems, cornmeal gems, blueberry gems, rye gems, hominy gems, and just plain old unadorned gems. I wasn't really sure what they were and how they’re different than a muffin. Time to mine for answers.
In 1859, a Boston man named Nathaniel Waterman patented what is now regarded as the quintessential gem pan. It’s a cast-iron baking vessel that's not unlike a muffin tin, but usually with the individual batter cups separated so heat can flow evenly around them and be evenly conducted. The compartments are generally shallower than most muffin bases and tend to be either circular or rounded-off ovals. The lack of a flat surface uniting them means there's no room for the spillover that creates a modern muffin's signature top—even though the recipes for gems and muffins tend to be fairly similar, if not identical.
Into two cupfuls of unskimmed milk which has been made very cold by standing on ice, stir gradually, sprinkling it from the hand, three and one fourth cupfuls of Graham flour. Beat vigorously for ten minutes or longer, until the batter is perfectly smooth and full of air bubbles. Turn at once into hissing hot gem irons, and bake in a hot oven. If preferred, the batter may be prepared, and the dish containing it placed on ice for an hour or longer; then well beaten and baked. Graham gems may be made in this manner with soft water instead of milk, but such, in general, will need a little more flour than when made with milk. With some ovens, it will be found an advantage in baking these gems to place them on the upper grate for the first ten minutes or until the top has been slightly crusted, and then change to the bottom of the oven for the baking. —Science in the Kitchen by Mrs. E. E. Kellogg (1893)
Mix one teaspoon baking powder and a little salt into one pint of flour; add to the beaten yolks of two eggs one teacup sweet milk or cream; a piece of butter (melted) half the size of an egg, the flour with baking powder and salt mixed and the well beaten whites of the two eggs. Beat well and bake immediately in gem pans in a hot oven. —Mrs. L. L. Lampman in Williston, North Dakota's Civic League Cook Book (1913)
1 cupful sugar
1/2 cupful Crisco
3/4 cupful chopped preserved ginger
1 cupful milk
3 cupfuls flour
3 teaspoonfuls baking powder
1/2 teaspoonful salt
Cream Crisco and sugar together, then add eggs well beaten. Sift flour, baking powder, and salt together and add alternately with milk to first mixture. Now mix in ginger and divide mixture into Criscoed and floured gem pans and bake in hot oven twenty-five minutes. —The Story of Crisco (1916)
One cupful of dates, seeded and chopped fine, two cupfuls of milk, two tablespoonfuls of melted butter, one heaping teaspoonful of baking powder, three cupfuls of flour, and one egg well beaten. Mix the egg and milk, sift the dry ingredients together, add the chopped dates, and combine mixtures. Beat hard and bake in well-buttered gem-irons for about twenty minutes. Figs or prunes may be used instead of dates. —The Myrtle Reed Cook Book (1916)
So what's the difference between muffins and gems? I was hardly the first to wonder that. Some cast-iron historians posit that a company called Gem made muffin tins, and the term became used generically for small non-yeasted quick breads, in the same way that Kleenex is used as a blanket term for facial tissues. But a query from a "Miss M.B." from Palmetto, Georgia, in the 1902 edition of The Boston Cooking-School Magazine of Culinary Science and Domestic Economics spells it out as plainly as I would have: "Please tell me the difference between gems and muffins."
Editor Janet McKenzie Hill's answer: "At the present time, the words 'gems' and 'muffins' seem to be interchangeable; but originally muffins were made light either by yeast, baking powder, or cream of tartar and soda, while gems were lightened without carbon dioxide (either by the expansion of air beaten into the eggs or into the dough itself)."
Thank you for clearing that up, Ms. Hill. You're a real gem.