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Gingerbread Throughout History: A Sweet Holiday Retrospective
by Marjorie Dorfman

And I had but one penny in the world. Thou should’st have it to buy gingerbread.
– William Shakespeare, Love’s Labours Lost

What is the origin of gingerbread and how did it become associated with the Christmas season? These and other scrumptious issues linger below, that is, if you dare to not even think the word "diet" and can stand a wondrous sniff.

The origins of gingerbread are steeped in a flavorful tradition, and date back to the ancient world. Ginger root is Malaysian, and was once used to soothe an upset stomach and prevent a cold. In 2000 BC wealthy Greek families sailed to the isle of Rhodes to buy "spiced honey cakes." Throughout pre-Christian Europe, the Winter Solstice was celebrated with the creation and ingestion of small gingerbread cakes adorned with symbols of the sun.

The First Crusades of the eleventh century heralded the return of weary pilgrims and soldiers from the Middle East. They brought with them a mysterious and heretofore unknown succession of ingredients that would become the mainstay for the gingerbread recipe. These included spices, (ginger) sugars, almonds and citrus fruits. Catholic monks began to bake gingerbread for special religious celebrations, constructing the cakes into specific designs. Often depicting saints and other religious motifs, these wonderful early carvings were made via large and elaborately carved "cookie boards" that impressed the pattern onto a stiff rolled dough. (Today, these depictions can only be seen in some museums and are very rare.)

Two hundred years later, (around 1300) the English added bread crumbs to the mixture of spices and developed "ginger candy." Often the bread used was stale and the spices had to be very heavy in order to disguise this fact as well as the taste. Hence, gingerbread in its modern form reared its lovely and most sumptuous head.

Gingerbread became so popular during medieval times that many festivities were actually known as "gingerbread fairs." In England the alternative name of "fairings" came to mean a gift given at or brought from a fair. Early bakers created certain shapes in association with the different seasons of the year. During the spring, buttons and flowers were the most prevalent motifs, while in autumn animals and birds predominated. Forms were generally inspired by the commonplace images of daily life. During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, decorative themes expanded to include elaborate depictions of lords, ladies, soldiers, castles and occasionally floral and geometric designs.

The term gingerbread does not tell the whole story or even more than just a little delicious part of it. In Medieval England gingerbread meant simply "preserved ginger" and was actually a corruption of the Old French gingebras, derived from the Latin name of the spice, Zingebar. The term was not applied to a kind of cake made with treacle and flavored with ginger until the 15th century. It is probably no accident that recipes for cakes, cookies and flavored breads developed rapidly after it was discovered that ginger had a preservative effect when added to pastries and bread.

Each country maintained its own variation of gingerbread. In some places, it took the form of a soft, spiced cake while in others it was a crisp flat cookie. Still other modifications called for thick dark squares of bread that were sometimes served with whipped cream or lemon sauce. (Diets be damned or at least go away until the next gingerbread day!) Of all the countries in Europe, Germany has the most enduring tradition of flat, shaped gingerbreads. Even today, throughout Germany at every autumn fair, there are rows of stalls filled with hundreds of gingerbread hearts, decorated with white and colored icing and tied with ribbons.

Of all the German cities, Nuremberg became known as the "gingerbread capital" of the world. Sculptors, painters, woodcarvers and goldsmiths all contributed in the creation of the most beautiful cakes in Europe. Gifted craftsmen carved wooden molds and talented artists assisted with the frosting. Many of these designs were actually objets d’art, varied and incredibly fancy, depicting angels, hearts and wreaths.

Nuremberg gingerbread was not baked in the home. It was the exclusive production of a Guild of master bakers known as the Lebkuchler. Their creations known as lebuucken, called for all of the flavorings and ingredients available at the time. These included cardamom, cloves, cinnamon, white pepper, anise and ginger. Larger pieces of gingerbread even today are used to build hexenhaeusle (witches’ houses) and are also referred to as Knusperhaeuschen (houses for nibbling at).

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.")

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.

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.

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!

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Copyright 2005