food humorfood humor Eat, Drink and Really Be Merry
Gingerbread Throughout History: A Sweet Holiday Retrospective
by Marjorie Dorfman
page 2

ginger cookies During the 19th century, gingerbread became a romantic as well as a delicious phenomenon of the modern world. The Grimm Brothers included among their collection of fairy tales one about two children, Hansel and Gretel, who discovered a house in the woods made of bread, cake and candies (a diabetic’s nightmare!). Composer Engelbert Humperdink, (yes, that’s where the singer got his stage name and not vice versa), wrote an opera about the little boy and girl and their gingerbread house. (Whoever lived there before the children and why they vacated the premises are perhaps part of the secret that is known as the "sweet mystery of life.")

gingerbread cookie In France a yeasty spice bread made of ginger, allspice (or cloves) aniseed and honey was known as a pain d’epices. In Italy, Panforte, which was a dense rich gingerbread, was almost like candy, deeply enriched with nuts and dried fruits. It was baked slowly and served in slices, and, like its German counterparts, was more often prepared commercially than in homes. A Sienese specialty, it was said that during the holiday baking season, the spicy fragrance could be detected from a mile away!

In colonial America, New Englanders rejected Christmas celebrations. Their gingerbread cookie boards were a part of their culinary culture, but no longer considered specialties of the holiday season. This transmuted around 1800 into a gingerbread celebration of New Years Day, as this was the most commonly celebrated New England winter holiday.

Early settlers from Northern Europe brought the gingerbread tradition and their family recipes to the New World. By the 19th century, America had been baking gingerbread for decades. For the most part, American recipes utilized fewer spices and focussed on regional ingredients. Maple syrup gingerbreads, for example were specialties of New England, while in the South sorghum molasses was often used.

Queen Victoria Regional variations sprouted with the influx of more and more immigrants. Pennsylvania particularly, was greatly influenced by German cooking and many traditional German gingerbreads reappeared in this area, especially at Christmas time. "Hard gingerbreads" were shaped into little pudgy men until the introduction of the cookie cutter. This occurred as a direct influence of Queen Victoria and her German husband, Albert, who began the tradition in England. Pennsylvania Dutch tinsmiths are famous to this day for their innovative and creative shapes.

Cookies shaped with tin cutters became tree ornaments. They were made in large quantities as they also often doubled and tripled as stocking stuffers and platter decorations. The York True Democrat of 1868 reports: "Cakes of various forms and quality droop from the different limbs, birds of paradise, humming birds, robins, peewees, and a variety of others seem to twitter among the evergreens."

During the late 19th century as Christmas became more and more a commercial holiday, these cookies became part of the season itself, depicting wreaths, Santas, elves, snowmen, toys and sleds.

gingerbread house The gingerbread tradition is and always will be associated with the joys of the holiday season. Nowhere in the world is there a greater repertoire of recipes for this wondrous creation than in the good old US of A (as Archie Bunker used to say). Despite its constancy, differences abound in taste, form and presentation. They change every year as the imaginative among us have their way with all the wonderful ingredients available on the market today.

It’s as if a special blend of magic occurs in the kitchen at this time of year that is beyond even master Houdini’s ghostly reach. Still, I am sure that even the great magician himself would have paused between his famous death-defying disappearing acts to taste a bit of home-made and scrumptious gingerbread cookie or cake. After all, we only live once, don’t we? (And if we live more than once, just think about the repercussions not only of karma, but also in terms of eating gingerbread under the auspices of karma!

Happy holidays to all and to all a good gingerbread!

Check this review by Marjorie of an interesting kitchen gadget:

For the greatest wrinkle-free cookies...
Pizzelle Iron

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Don't miss this excellent book:

Making Great Gingerbread Houses:
Delicious Designs from Cabins to Castles, from Lighthouses to Tree Houses

by Paige Gilchrist

Making Great Gingerbread Houses

This book is all you need to make gingerbread houses – whether you're a beginner or an expert. Professional gingerbread maker Aaron Morgan walks you step-by-step through the process of building a basic gingerbread house, using how-to photos and easy-to-follow instructions.

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