Where does gingerbread come from, and why is it called that? The answer involves the crusades, witchcraft, and taxation without representation.
What Is Gingerbread?
Gingerbread refers to an entire class of desserts often spiced with ginger, cloves, nutmeg, cinnamon, or pepper and sweetened with molasses or honey. The texture can range anywhere from a hard candy to a soft, moist cake to a thin, crunchy biscuit—but despite the name, gingerbread has never really been a bread.
Ginger and Bread
Ginger, the spice for which gingerbread is named, was first cultivated over 5,000 years ago in Southeast Asia as a medicinal agent and a spice for cooking. Around the first century CE, traders brought ginger to India and the Mediterranean via the Silk Road. Like most spices, it was expensive and highly sought after.
Early gingerbread recipes are found in many different cultures—there is probably no one single origin. But the first recorded recipe for gingerbread comes from Greece in about 2400 BCE. The Greeks and perhaps the Romans and Egyptians used honey-sweetened ginger cakes for ceremonial purposes (e.g., offering gingerbread to the dragons that guarded the temple of Pallas Athena) or served them at weddings. They were viewed as a status symbol due to the high price of ginger.
It’s not clear exactly where and when gingerbread made its way into Europe, a matter made more complicated by the changing meaning of the word. The word “gingerbread” comes from the Old French gingembras, based on the Latin term for ginger, zingebre. (This, in turn, developed from the older Sanskrit word meaning for “horn-shaped” or “antler-shaped” in reference to ginger’s multi-branched rhizome.) The word gingembras was adopted into English in the form gyngebreed, and though it did not have an etymological link to bread, it sounded enough like it that it eventually morphed into gingerbread. In medieval England, the term “gingerbread” referred more broadly to gingered food or any kind of preserved ginger, which was used as medicine and a spice to preserve meat. Over the centuries, “gingerbread” narrowed to specifically refer to ginger-flavored cakes and cookies.
Gingerbread in Europe
In 992, an Armenian monk called Gregory of Nicopolis fled to France and brought with him some ginger and a Byzantine recipe for honey-sweetened ginger cakes. These cakes left quite an impression, as recorded in a tenth-century manuscript: “His guests, on tasting the cake, believed they were experiencing all the delights of Heaven.” But when his ginger supply ran out, so did the heavenly ginger cakes. Gingerbread may have been introduced more widely to Europe in the eleventh century by Crusaders returning from the eastern Mediterranean, and trade routes opened a more steady supply of ginger.
One early type of gingerbread in Europe was a paste made of ground almonds, breadcrumbs, ginger, and rosewater and pressed into wooden molds depicting mythological scenes, stories from the Bible, saints, monarchs, or the news of the day. These edible storyboards were decorated with icing or gold paint. From the fifteenth century to the American colonial era, schoolchildren even made gingerbread “hornbooks” inscribed with the alphabet to help them learn how to read. (They got to eat each letter as they recited it—a delicious motivation to learn.)
The art of gingerbread making was practiced first in monasteries, which had exclusive access to ginger for a time. Monks and nuns in Sweden and other countries baked gingerbread to use as the Eucharist, to feed the poor, and to display religious scenes for instruction. They also used ginger to cure stomach ailments and to preserve food. Later, ginger made its way into royal kitchens and the homes of the fabulously wealthy—and it caught on. Gingerbread guilds were established to train and support master gingerbread bakers, who employed a high degree of skill and artistic ability in producing their gingerbread creations. Nuremburg and Ulm in Germany, Torun in Poland, and several other cities in Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and France were world-renowned for their artisan gingerbread carefully crafted within gingerbread guilds.
As spices like ginger made their way into popular use, gingerbread quickly became a common treat at medieval fairs in France, England, and Germany, and there were even designated gingerbread fairs. Gingerbread was sometimes elaborately decorated with icing or even gold leaf and tied with a ribbon. People bought gingerbread to give as tokens to lovers, which was known as “fairing.” Eating gingerbread in a certain shape was thought to bring about a specific outcome. For example, a hare-shaped gingerbread was thought to bring fertility, and a pig-shaped gingerbread brought good fortune. Adoring fans bought gingerbread in the shape of flowers, birds, and hearts for their chosen knights as a good luck charm. Young women ate “gingerbread husbands” in hopes that a real husband would soon materialize.
As Shakespeare wrote in Love’s Labour’s Lost, “And I had but one penny in the world, thou should’st have it to buy gingerbread.”
Gingerbread around the World
Gingerbread Men in England
As cheap gingerbread became widely available to the masses, the English court maintained a tradition of elaborate—and politically motivated—gingerbread baking.
Gingerbread men came around during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, who often hosted dinner parties featuring marzipan shaped like birds, fruit, and castles. It was a short jump to making gingerbread biscuits in the shape of important people invited to the dinner. Queen Elizabeth played her political cards by giving or withholding gingerbread likenesses to indicate favor for both her inner circle and visiting dignitaries and suitors.
Notwithstanding Queen Elizabeth’s fondness for sweets, gingerbread men fell out of favor during the rule of King James I in the 1600s because they were thought to possess dangerous magical powers. The magic of a good luck charm, it seemed, could also be used for evil. It was thought that witches could made gingerbread effigies in the shape of their enemies and eat them to cause their death.
King James, along with other Protestant European rulers, enacted harsh anti-witchcraft laws that reflected a deeply superstitious view of gingerbread figures and their potential association with the occult and with saint’s feasts celebrated in Catholicism.
Gingerbread Houses in Germany
Germany really took off with the gingerbread tradition and enjoyed all kinds of gingerbread treats—most notably Lebkuchen, which are soft honey-ginger cakes originally baked by monks, and Pfeffernüsse, which aresmall cookies spiced with pepper that are popular during Christmas. A harder form of Lebkuchen is often shaped into hearts with romantic sayings written in icing on the top, and sold at street markets and fairs.
Gingerbread houses most likely originated in Germany during the 16th century. They either inspired or were inspired by the witch’s house in the fairy tale “Hansel and Gretel,” which was “built of bread, and roofed with cakes, and the window was of transparent sugar.” In later versions, the house was described as gingerbread. Whichever direction the trend went, this story led to a surge in the popularity of gingerbread houses in Europe.
Waves of immigrants brought gingerbread houses to North America, and by the 1800s, gingerbread houses were popular among the German population in Pennsylvania as Christmas decorations.
Uncle Sam’s Gingerbread
Molasses—like just about everything else—was political in America. Molasses, a key ingredient in some gingerbread recipes, played a key role leading up to the revolution. The colonists used molasses not only for baking but also for making rum. When molasses imported from France became cheaper than molasses from the British-controlled Barbados and Jamaica, England sought a molasses monopoly in the colonies by passing the Molasses Act of 1733, imposing a tax on molasses from foreign nations. The colonists protested, ignored, and defied the Molasses Act and smuggled in foreign molasses anyway, leading England to retaliate in the form of more duties on sugar and molasses. This led to popular resentment of British rule and the subsequent revolution.
Meanwhile, early colonists shaped gingerbread into miniature kings before the revolution and bald eagles afterward. Another fun fact is that gingerbread cookies were once used in early political campaigns in Virginia as incentives for voters.
George Washington’s mother, Mary Ball Washington, passed down a famous gingerbread recipe she once served to the Marquis de Lafayette when he visited her home in Fredericksburg. Her recipe is sometimes known as Gingerbread Lafayette and is laced with orange zest and brandy.
Gingerbread for Christmas
Varieties of gingerbread are made in many different countries—pierniki toruńskie in Poland, pepparkakor in Sweden, biber in Switzerland, Parliament cakes in Scotland, marranitos in Mexico, yiyinbre in Panama, and lekach as a traditional Ashkenazi Jewish treat during Rosh Hoshanah, to name a few. And in many of these areas, gingerbread is especially associated with winter holidays.
No one knows for sure why we eat gingerbread at Christmas, but we can take a guess. One thread running through many of these gingerbread traditions is that of giving—whether giving to a friend, lover, or dinner guest, gingerbread captures the spirit of giving at Christmas.
Other associations with Christmas include the exotic spices as representative of the gifts of the Magi, and simply the fact that warm spices go really well with a hot drink in cold weather. Enough associations, and we have a match!
Modern takes on gingerbread include gingerbread lattes, gingerbread cheesecake, and gingerbread Oreos—but the classic, centuries-old tradition of gingerbread will never get old.
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