One of my favourite recipes in the My Mother’s Cookbook collection is for a ‘traditional’ blueberry muffin. As a child I thought blueberries only grew near the railway… that this Blueberry muffin recipe came into the collection while our family was living in Cumberland County, NS some 60 miles(in 1968) from the nearest railway, is not coincidence.
The first European settlement of the Atlantic region occurred on the coast and on the banks of navigable rivers and streams. From the earliest periods the building of roadways, were mostly to improve portages around natural obstructions or to create short cuts, roads as a primary transportation link did not appear until much later.
The railway’s arrival beginning in the mid to late 19th century served to open many areas previously isolated by their lack of access to water. Suddenly communities with names like Oxford Junction, Stephenville Crossing and Weaver Siding sprang up. The railway also served to provide the means for business and manufacturing to develop and for communities like Amherst, NS to thrive.
For communities like Carrolls Crossing, NB, the addition of ‘train tracks’ not only provided vital transportation link, it ingrained its self in to the community, the tracks were used for many purposes: short cuts, access to the best swimming hole, the location of entertainment on long summer evening walking up the tracks to the point where the darkening sky was just right for ghost stories, playing ‘tin can alley’ in the station yard, hitching a ride, (on the handcar) across the railway bridge on the way to pick blueberries.
Amherst, Cumberland County, Nova Scotia was founded as a result of the New England Planters farming and fishing activity on the shores of the Bay of Fundy, by 1850 Amherst boasted a grist mill, tannery and other basic services. By 1880, the railway had arrived and the community’s reputation as a manufacturing center had began to build, boots and shoes, pianos, trunks, caskets and eventually engineered steel would be produced in Amherst.
Even as the railway was sending Amherst’s goods to market, it was drawing workers, farmers, fisherman, lumberman, miners, shipwrights, etc. to work in Amherst’s factories and those in other centers across the region. The railway also connected the region to New England states via land, for the first time providing an alternative to sea voyage. Access to larger markets came with increased out migration from those communities not served by rail service and from many which were, as younger people sought opportunities in larger centers.
Many young people including Edna Jane O’Donnell Babcock born in 1900, used train travel to expand her opportunities. In 1922 Edna left her home, the tiny railway hamlet of Carroll’s Crossing, NB to work as a domestic in Portland Maine. Her time in Portland would end with a train voyage back home to marry the Canadian soldier she’d met while in Portland. Eventually, Edna and her young family would settle in Amherst, NS, her husband William finding work as an inspector in the Robb Engineering factory.
The train would remain a vital link to home for Edna allowing her children to meet and spend time with their extend family at home in New Brunswick. Edna would not have found it difficult to locate blueberries to use in her baking at her new home, she might well have taken her children on blueberry picking walks on the railway tracks near her humble home on Cornwall street, Amherst, just as she had done at home.
Train travel also provided a reliable way for those who had moved to distant larger centers, Boston, New York and beyond to visit home. It is likely train travel figured large when in 1927 Gussie Deuchler Mills made her first visit to her new husband Carl’s home in Advocate Harbour, Cumberland county, Nova Scotia from her home is Staten Island, New York. Advocate Harbour is located on the Bay of Fundy in an area known as the Parrsboro shore. From the 1870’s to the late 1950’s a short rail line operated between Springhill Junction, NS and Parrsboro, NS. The line built originally to transport coal from the mines at Springhill to ships at Parrsboro and eventually other ports of call. By the 1880s, an interconnected web of short lines linked to the larger Regional and National lines providing extensive coverage through out much of the region.
Gussie, Carl and both Gussie’s Mother Louise and her sister Deal spent many summer seasons in Advocate Harbour before Carl and Gussie retired there in the late 1960’s. So where did Gussie’s Blueberry Muffin recipe originate?
It turns out blueberries do grow near rail lines, at least in those areas with poor soil (particularly where the Appalachian mountain range left bare large swaths of acidic soil). The regular cutting back of vegetation near rail lines to prevent fires, allowed the low bush varieties native to New Brunswick and Nova Scotia to thrive. It is also true that Blueberries grow in much of North America. However the acidic soil and cool sea breezes of the Northern Nova Scotia and Eastern New Brunswick, which is part of the northern Appalachian range, delivers natural Blueberry barrens. Cumberland county, Nova Scotia in particular has earned a reputation in recent years of being Canada’s wild blueberry capital as a result of being blessed with bounty of blueberry barrens.
The history of muffins (the quick bread variety) is not entirely clear, the habit of using individually sized baking containers for quick breads appears to have begun in the United States some time during the last half of the 19th century.
So, the mystery of where Gussie’s blueberry muffin recipe originate deepens. Did the recipe begin with one of Gussie in laws during early years of blueberry farming on the Parrsboro shore? It is more likely the recipe is one which originated with Gussie’s family on Staten Island. Staten Island a borough of the mega city of New York owes its existence the Appalachian mountain range and like Atlantic Canada several varieties of blueberries grown naturally on there. It is likely that Gussie’s immigrant family learned early to use the bounty of the local area to augment their diet… just as they had done in Germany. Blueberries, both high bush and low bush varieties still grow in undeveloped areas of Staten Island, although increased development threatens their continued existence.
This recipe is a traditional muffin recipe. Commercially baked muffins have increased the overall size of muffins and have replaced traditional muffin recipes with those containing higher levels of sugar and fat, This recipe contains less sugar and fat. It is possible to alter the recipe further by replacing some of the all purpose flour with whole wheat and the fat with yogourt.
Gussie’s Blueberry Muffins
1/3 cup butter at room temperature
1/2 cup sugar
1 egg at room temperature – lightly beaten
3/4 cup milk
2 cups of flour, separated
3 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
1 cup fresh wild blueberries, winded and washed
1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees F.;
2. In a medium mixing bowl, cream butter and sugar, add slightly beaten egg stir to combine;
3. In a separate bowl combine 1 3/4 cups of flour with other dry ingredients and stir to combine; add remaining 1/4 cup flour to a bowl containing cleaned blueberries;
4. Alternate adding the dry ingredients with the milk, folding to combine and being careful not to over mix; Add blueberries and gently toss to combine;
5. Fill muffin tins with muffin papers or grease and flour before adding batter.
6. Bake for 20 – 25 minutes, remove from pans after permitting to cool for 5 minutes.