by Tyler Morrison
The smell of it baking, the taste of a gingerbread man, or the sight of a gingerbread house, conjures the holidays. Memories float forward, bumping out our to-do lists, allowing sweet visions of childhood to pervade our minds. It’s not just a number on a calendar that tells us the holidays are upon us. It’s the aromas, tastes, and visual feasts that make them real. The tantalizing proposition of baking almond butter rings elicits a hint of the holidays, but it’s the distinct scent of gingerbread that makes it definitive. Gingerbread has been embedded in our culture for centuries. And I am all about old school.
Gingerbread gets its name from the rather unattractive root “ginger.” In fact, the term gingerbread (from Latin zingiber via Old French gingebras) originally referred to preserved ginger. Gingerbread’s deep, rich color comes from molasses. Made with a variety of spices, it can contain brown sugar, molasses, granulated sugar, honey, and/or light or dark corn syrup.
Ginger itself originated in jungles from the Indian subcontinent to Southern Asia where it grows in a wide variety of subspecies. An early export from Asia, ginger was a popular discovery to the ancient Greeks and Romans where Ginger shakers were often placed on the table along with those for salt and pepper and the word ‘ginger’ came to mean spices in general.
The ginger root has long been associated with myriad of health benefits and holistic medicines. It has been thought to aid in digestion (soothing stomach aches), be an anti-inflammatory aid, help with menstrual cramps and morning sickness, fend off disease, and even relieve some of the nausea associated with motion sickness. Some use it to relieve heartburn as well, although medical evidence seems to be inconclusive as to the validity of any actual medical benefits.
So where exactly did ginger meet the bread? There seems to be almost as many theories as there are gingerbread men. According to sugarcraft scholar Steven Stellingwerf, gingerbread may have been introduced to Western Europe by 11th-century crusaders returning from the eastern Mediterranean. Gingerbread was a favorite treat at festivals and fairs in medieval Europe-often shaped and decorated to look like flowers, birds, animals or even armor-and several cities in France and England hosted regular “gingerbread fairs” for centuries. Ladies often gave their favorite knights a piece of gingerbread for good luck in a tournament, or superstitiously ate a “gingerbread husband” to improve their chances of landing the real thing.
By 1598, it was popular enough to merit a mention in a Shakespeare play (“An I had but one penny in the world, thou shouldst have it to buy ginger-bread...”).
In Germany, gingerbread cookies called Lebkuchen have long been a fixture at street festivals, often in the shape of hearts frosted with sugary messages like “Alles was ich brauch bist du” (All I need is you) or “Du bist einfach super” (You’re really super). As far as I can tell, Germans also invented the concept of making gingerbread houses, probably inspired by the witch’s candy cottage in the fairy tale of Hansel and Gretel, two children who, abandoned in the woods by destitute parents, discovered a house made of bread, cake and candies. By the end of the century, the composer Englebert Humperdink wrote an opera about the boy and the girl and the gingerbread house.
Gingerbread is woven into the fiber of American history as well, its origins in the traditions of the many settlers from all parts of Northern Europe who brought with them family recipes and customs. By the nineteenth century, America had been baking gingerbread for decades. George Washington’s mother, Mary Ball Washington, developed a recipe for Gingerbread Cake in 1784. Gingerbread was Abraham Lincoln’s ‘biggest treat’ and he invoked a gingerbread anecdote in his Lincoln-Douglas debates. With only a brief period of decreased popularity (‘witches’ used gingerbread men as voodoo dolls in the early 17th century), gingerbread has been a delicious part of our western culture for centuries.
American recipes usually called for fewer spices than their European counterparts, but often made use of ingredients that were only available regionally. Maple syrup gingerbreads were made in New England, and in the South sorghum molasses was used.
Regional variations began occurring as more people arrived. In Pennsylvania, the influence of German cooking was great and many traditional Germany gingerbreads reappeared in this area, especially at Christmas time. The North and Midwest of America welcomed the Northern and Middle Europeans. At Christmas it is still very common in the Midwest to have Scandinavian cookies like Pepparkaker or Lebkuchen. Often one can find wives holding "coffee kolaches" (coffee mornings) at which European ginger cakes still reign.
Nowhere in the world is there a greater repertoire of gingerbread recipes than in America-there are so many variations in taste, form and presentation. With the rich choice of ingredients, baking aids and decorative items the imaginative cook can create the most spectacular gingerbread houses and centerpieces ever.