I’m a believer in eating foods in season, especially when the foods are festive, nostalgic and not very good for you. During the holiday season, the opportunities for gluttony are plentiful, and with so many parties and potlucks, finding a delicious and fun seasonal dish to bring is crucial. While many food trends come and go, some seasonal foods endure year after year, becoming so enshrined that the holidays just don’t seem complete without them. These classic holiday foods often have an interesting back story that can be overlooked, and I enjoying finding out how these special foods became traditional, and how people continue to play with them, making them new again.
Which brings us to gingerbread. At first glance, the combination of ginger and spices to baked goods seems rather obvious and unambiguous. One would be forgiven for thinking this recipe was too cliché, boring or sentimental to be worthy of scholarly interest. But how many pastries inspire the type of grandiose displays as World’s Largest Gingerbread House, built in Bryan, Texas in 2013? Measuring 60 feet by 42 feet and standing up to 20 feet tall and clocking in at 35,823,400 calories, this colossal confection construction merits giving gingerbread a few moments consideration.
And let’s not forget the World’s Largest Gingerbread Man, built in 2009 in Madison, Wisconsin.
And the Largest Gingerbread Village created by Chef Jon Lovitch in 2013 in New York City.
Still not convinced? What about the world’s largest gingerbread pirate ship, in Amelia Island, Florida?
And if you want to get away from “the world’s largest”, gingerbread as a creative medium knows no bounds. We’ve got spaceships,
and much else. Let’s see cinnamon raisin bread do that!
All of which is to say, gingerbread, at least to some people, is a big fucking deal. So where did it come from?
To begin, ginger root is native to either India  or southeastern Asia , depending on whom you ask.
According to the authoritative Cambridge World History of Food, by Kiple and Ornelas  “ginger is the underground rhizome of a tropical flowering plant Zingiber officiale. The word zingiber means “horn shaped” in Sanskrit and was applied to ginger because of the shape of the rhizomes. Ginger was used in China and India 7,000 years ago and was an important item in the spice trade that stretched overland and by sea from India to the ports of the eastern Mediterranean, and to Egypt via the Red Sea.”
The story of ginger’s origin is rather obscure, but there are some clues, as Andrew Dalby , author of Dangerous Tastes: The Story of Spices, explains. “By the fourth millennium BC–six thousand years ago–the Austronesians’ were beginning to spread southwards across the Malay Archipelago, starting from the coast of south-eastern China and from mountainous Taiwan. Eventually they reached as far as Madagascar on the western edge of the Indian Ocean and even distant Easter Island in the eastern Pacific. No written history, and no surviving oral tradition, tells of this epic series of migrations. We know of the migration by linguistic detective work.
Among the typical flora of southern China and Indochina are the wild gingers and their relatives–showy plants with typically large white or yellow flowers, spicy, aromatic, and very important in traditional medicine. We concentrate on ginger itself, because there are two good clues that ginger is a very ancient spice, perhaps the most ancient of all. The botanical clue is that, unlike its relatives, ginger is propagated only by splitting the root, never from seed–as sign that it has grown for so long under human control that it has lost one of the essential characteristics of the wild plant from which it derives.
The linguistic clue is that a name for ginger can be traced back from its modern forms in many of the Austronesian languages to the early Austronesian speech of the Philippines. This means that in all their long migrations from the Philippines onwards the speakers of Austronesian languages never lost their familiarity with ginger. In the boats that humans built in those ancient times there was no room for luxuries. Ginger, then, must have been recognized as a necessity of life. Finding that it did not already grow where they planned to settle, the Austronesian-speaking migrants planted ginger in their gardens on each new island. Thus is spread from southern China to the Philippines and the Spice Islands–and, from that crossroads, onwards both east and west.” This suggest the cultivation and use of ginger is an ancient practice, and one with deep cultural roots.Ginger, having its origin in Asia, is ubiquitous in Asian food. In Food in China: A Cultural and Historical Inquiry, Frederick Simoons , argues that “ginger has had a long, illustrious role in Chinese cuisine. Its importance throughout history is revealed by repeated reference to it in food in Chinese culture, more numerous than for vinegar, sugar, garlic, soy sauce, or any other spice or flavoring.”
Simoons  also informs us that ginger was much desired and fueled the ancient spice trade. “The plant was carried west from India to Africa by the Arabs, and at least by the tenth century A.D. Zanzibar was a supplier of the ginger trade. The rhizome reached Europe by the first century A.D., with its Greek and Latin names, like its Arabic and Persian ones, deriving ultimately from India. China, along with India, was an important early supplier of the ginger trade, and Chinese ginger was carried far across the Old World to market, much of it for pharmaceutical purposes.”
The ancient Greeks and Romans were enchanted with ginger and enjoyed both its flavor and its medicinal virtues, though they were a little foggy on the facts of the plant. In Siren Feasts: A History of Food and Gastronomy in Greece, Andrew Dalby  observes, “We first hear of ginger, zingiberi, in a Greek-speaking context when the Roman medical writer Celsus lists ginger as one of the ingredients in King Mithridates’ famous poison antidote. This would date the knowledge of ginger–at least among royal pharmacists in Pontus–to the early first century BC. In the following century the Greek pharmacist Dioscorides of Anasarba who says something of a ginger trade, hints that the Imperial provinces may not have been rich enough to share the expensive luxuries that were shipped to Rome. As for the geographical origin of ginger, Greek pharmacological authors had traditionally described it as Indian: this was misleading, though it is possible that some supplies of ginger came to the Mediterranean by way of south India. Pliny and Dioscordes of Anazarba were aware that some ginger was grown around the southern Red Sea. None was aware that its original habitat was far to the east of India, the ‘Spice Islands’ of modern Indonesia.”
Patrick Faas , author of Around the Roman Table, claims that “the Romans did not know where ginger came from. Some thought it was the root of the pepper plant; others said it was nothing of the sort. It was popular and is mentioned among the ingredients of about thirteen of Apicious’ recipes. He ate ginger on lamb, meatballs, lettuce, garden beans, peas, bread, in chicken and in stuffed suckling pigs, but not, as in eastern countries, with fish.”
Pliny the Elder  wrote in AD 77–79 in his Natural History, “the root of the pepper-tree is not, as some people have thought, the same as the substance called ginger, or by others zinpiberi, although it has a similar flavor. Ginger is grown on farms in Arabia and Cave-dwellers’ Country; it is a small plant with a white root. The plant is liable to decay very quickly, in spite of its extreme pungency. Its price is six denarii a pound. Both pepper and ginger grown wild in their own countries, and nevertheless they are bought by weight like gold or silver.”
There isn’t total agreement among the sources how much ginger Roman ate. In the Oxford Companion to Food, Alan Davidson  contends that “the ginger plant has been cultivated since ancient times, and was among the most highly prized of the eastern imports to the Roman Empire. However, Romans used it relatively little in cookery, prizing it rather for medicinal purposes.”
On the other hand, in their comprehensive work Ginger: The Genus Zingiber, Ravindran, and Babu  recount that “the legend is that around 2400 B.C. a baker on the Isle of Rhodes near Greece prepared the first gingerbread. Shortly thereafter the recipe found its way to Egypt, where the Egyptians savored its excellent flavor and served it on ceremonial occasions. The Romans distributed gingerbread to all parts of the empire.” If the Romans had distributed gingerbread all over, they probably ate a fair bit of it.
There’s also some disagreement about whether ginger was available after the fall of the Roman Empire. Davidson  confidently declares that “the fall of the Roman Empire did not stop the trade of ginger to Europe” noting that “it was in use in England in Anglo-Saxon times.” In case you’re curios, ‘Anglo-Saxon times’ covers the 5th to 11th centuries. The Royal Botanic Gardens , seems to agree with Davidson, noting that “Gingerbread, one of the most popular uses for ginger in Britain, dates to Anglo-Saxon times when preserved ginger (produced by boiling the rhizome in sugar syrup) was used, often medicinally.”
This view is not shared by John Mariani  author of Encyclopedia of American Food and Drink, who declares, with equal confidence, that “ginger was well known to the ancient Romans, but it nearly disappeared in Europe after the fall of the Roman Empire.”
In any case, without wide access to exotic spices like ginger, Europe must have seemed a very bland place. But this was to change, thanks to Marco Polo. Kenneth Farrell , author of Spices, Condiments and Seasonings, states that, “Marco Polo was the first European to write of actually finding ginger in China.” In Spices and Herbs: Lore and Cookery, Elizabeth Hayes  agrees that “Marco Polo saw the growing plant during his travels of China and noted this fact in his journal in the year A.D. 1280.” Most importantly, according to Mariani  “Marco Polo brought ginger back from the Orient, and afterwards the European appetite for spices made it once again a treasured and expensive condiment.”
While Marco Polo may get credit for providing Europe with a supply of ginger, Dawn Marie Schrandt  author of Just Me Cookin in Germany suggests that the crusades played a role in creating the demand. “The manufacture of gingerbread appears to have spread throughout Western Europe at the end of the eleventh century, possibly introduced by crusaders returning from wars in the Eastern Mediterranean.”
With the spice trade reestablished, ginger was a big hit. In Food in Early Modern Europe, Ken Albala  asserts that “ginger was one of the most important spices in the medieval kitchen. It was used principally dried and ground, though there are references to ‘green ginger’ which was presumably candied or crystallized because fresh ginger would never have lasted on the lengthy voyage from Asia. Ginger was used in practically every conceivable context and with nearly every kind of food, as well as in more familiar preparations like gingerbread. Through the early modern period its use was increasingly restricted to sweets, especially in classical French cuisine.”
While there is an often told story that gingerbread was brought to Europe in 992 by the Armenian monk Gregory of Nicopolis who taught gingerbread baking to French Christians, I could find no scholarly source which mentioned such a man. The closest reference I could find was in the Oxford Companion to Food, in which Davidson  notes that “it is also commonly held, and correctly, that culinary influences passed from the Arab world to Europe, rather than in the other direction. However Maxime Rodinson (1949) drew attention to a recipe in the 13th-century Arabic cookbook The Link to the Beloved for ‘a bread which the Franks and Armenians make, which is called aflāghūn,’ and remarked that despite its Armenian name it resembled pain d’épices or gingerbread.”
Tony Grumley-Grennan  author of The Fat Man’s Food & Drink Compendium, explains “in Europe ginger is generally used to flavor sweet foods such as cakes, biscuits and gingerbread, although the name gingerbread may be somewhat imprecise as, in medieval England, gingerbread meant simply preserved ginger and was a corruption of the old French gingebras, derived from the Latin name for the spice zingebar. It wasn’t until the late 1400s that the name came to be applied to a kind of cake made with treacle and flour flavored with ginger. Powdered dry ginger was found to have preservative properties when added to cakes and bread” which could in part explain why it was added in baked goods across so many cultures.
Ginger was certainly a prized commodity, as Elizabeth Hayes  informs us that “in the Middle Ages ginger was second only to pepper in value, and even as late as the seventeenth century the price of a pound of ginger was the same as the price of a sheep.” And Ravindran and Babu  assert that “in the Middle Ages ginger was considered to be so important a spice that the street in Basle where Swiss traders sold spices was named Imbergasse, meaning “Ginger Alley”. It was during that time that “gingerbread” became popular, and it became a favorite of Queen Elizabeth I and her court.”
The original recipe for gingerbread did not yield the same crisp cookie or moist cake that we might recognize today, as Susan Williams  argues in Food in the United States, 1820s-1890. “Gingerbread, originally made from a mixture of breadcrumbs and honey, spiced with ginger, cinnamon, and pepper, gained its deep brown color from the addition of saffron or “sanders” – powdered sandalwood. English and Scottish bakers rolled out the mixture into thin sheets that could be cut into individual cakes and baked at a low temperature until crisp. Sometimes the gingerbread was pressed into wooden molds to create a relief-decorated surface. Other bakers formed the batch into a square cake, which was then embellished with box leaves pinned down with gilded clovers.
During the Middle Ages, at least in England, gingerbread seems to be a favorite on festive occasions. Schrandt  observes that “from its very beginning gingerbread has been a fairground delicacy. Many fairs became known as “gingerbread fairs” and gingerbread items took on the alternative name in England of “fairings” which had the generic meaning of a gift given at, or brought from, a fair. Certain shapes were associated with different seasons: buttons and flowers were found at Easter fairs, and animals and birds were a feature in autumn. There is also more than one village tradition in England requiring unmarried women to eat gingerbread “husbands” at the fair if they are to stand a good chance of meeting a real husband.”
Davidson  adds that “gingerbread was also ornamented by impressing designs within wooden molds. The molds were sometimes very large and elaborate and beautifully carved. The habit of shaping gingerbread figures of men and pigs, especially for Bonfire Night (5 November) survives in Britain.”
The love of decorative gingerbread even touched the royal personages. In Robbing the Bees: A Biography of Honey–The Sweet Liquid Gold that Seduced the World, Holley Bishop  writes that “England’s Queen Elizabeth I commissioned likenesses of herself and all of her courtiers in elaborately decorated gingerbread.”In Gingerbread, Jennifer Lindner McGlinn  notes that the shape of the molded gingerbread could come in many varieties, even risqué ones. “Communities used these dense cakes to commemorate holidays and celebrations, and the images varied widely depending on the occasion. Flowers and religious symbols, in fact, seem to have been as popular as royal figures and even quite bawdy, scantily clad lovers.”
The love of gingerbread was not limited to England, according Schrandt . “Of all the countries in Europe, Germany is the one with the longest and strongest tradition of flat, shaped gingerbreads. At every autumn fair in Germany, and in the surrounding lands where the Germanic influence is strong, there are rows of stalls filled with hundreds of gingerbread hearts, decorated with white and colored icing and tied with ribbons. If you lived in Nuremberg in 1614, your family would have gone to the Christkindlmarkt in December. You would have bought carved Christmas decorations, special sausages, and the famous Nuremberg Lebkuchen flavored with ginger. Nuremberg gingerbread was not baked in the home, but was the preserve of an exclusive Guild of master bakers, the Lebkuchler.“Nuremberg became known as the “gingerbread capital” of the world and as with any major trading center, many fine craftsmen were attracted to the town. Sculptors, painters, woodcarvers and goldsmiths all contributed to the most beautiful gingerbread cakes in Europe. Gifted craftsmen carved intricate wooden molds, artists assisted with decoration in frosting or gold paint. Incredibly fancy hearts, angels, wreaths and other festive shapes were sold at fairs, carnivals and markets. Lebkuchen are made throughout Germany and large pieces of lebkuchen are used to build Hexenhaeusle (“witches’ houses,” from the fairy tale Hansel and Gretel, also called Lebkuchenhaeusel and Knusperhaeuschen—”houses for nibbling at”). Nuremberg merchants, in fact, were so well known for their spices that they had the nickname “pepper sacks.” From early on, Nuremberg’s Lebkuchen packed into one recipe all the variety of flavorings available to its bakers—cardamom, cloves, cinnamon, white pepper, anise and ginger.
During the nineteenth century, gingerbread was both modernized and romanticized. When the Grimm brothers collected volumes of German fairy tales they found one about 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 German composer Englebert Humperdink wrote an opera about the boy and the girl and the gingerbread house.”Schrandt  continues, “The traditions in France were closer to the German than the English ones, with noteworthy recipes for pain d’epices coming from Dijon, Reims and Paris. In 1571, French bakers of pain d’epices even won the right to their own guild, or professional organization, separate from the other pastry cooks and bakers. In Paris a gingerbread fair was held from the eleventh century until the nineteenth century at an abbey on the site of the present St. Antoine Hospital, where monks sold gingerbread cut into the shape of pigs.”
In the age of European colonization, ginger again had a role to play. According to Hayes  ginger was the first oriental spice to be grown in the new world, brought by the English to their colony in Jamaica. And “in 1585, it was the first oriental spice grown in the New World to be imported back to Europe.”
In America, gingerbread enjoyed a deep and abiding love. In Food, author Waverly Root  argues that “the English carried their taste for ginger to America, which was avid for ginger from the very beginning of its history. Ginger cookies were among the goodies passed out to the incorruptible voters of Virginia to induce them to choose the correct candidates for the House of Burgesses. Ginger was included in the standard rations of American soldiers during the Revolution, and after it the consumption of this and other seanoners was hardly discouraged by the fact that the number one spice port of the world during the first half of the nineteenth century was Salem, Massachusetts, because of the speed of the Yankee Clippers.” Mariani  adds that “Virginian William Byrd remarked in 1711 that he ‘ate gingerbread all day long.’”
During the seventeenth century gingerbread recipes changed and proliferated, when, according to Williams  “flour replaced the breadcrumbs and the gingerbread achieved the cake-like form that is familiar today. The sweetener also changed, from honey to sugar or treacle/molasses, or both, and some recipes called for the addition of dried fruits. By the nineteenth century, gingerbread persisted in a variety of forms-some traditional, some adapted to modern tastes. A perusal of nineteenth century cookery sources reveals many different gingerbread recipes.”
For examples, Mariani  notes “Amelia Simmons’s American Cookery (1796) gives a recipe for molasses gingerbread. Eliza Leslie’s 1828 volume Seventy-five Receipts, listed both a common gingerbread and an enriched Lafayette gingerbread with lemon juice and brown sugar.”According to Williams , “the woman organizers of the New England Log House and Kitchen exhibit at the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition in 1876 identified gingerbread as one of the three basic elements of a recreated New England menu.”
Schrandt  agrees, writing that “gingerbread making in North America has 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.
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 German practice of making lebkuchen houses never caught on in Britain in the same way as it did in North America, and it is here still that the most extraordinary creations are found. Elaborate Victorian houses, heavy with candies and sugar icicles, vie in competition with the Hansel and Gretel houses, more richly decorated and ornamented than most children could imagine in their wildest dreams.
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.”
There is one more gingerbread story we mustn’t omit. In Why Do We Shape Gingerbread Cookies Like People? L.V. Anderson  relates the tale’s origin. “The famous story of the runaway gingerbread man was first published in 1875 “when a children’s publication called St. Nicholas Magazine published “The Ginger-bread Boy,” about a living gingerbread man who runs away from various pursuers—a little old woman, a little old man, a cow, etc.—before he is eaten by a fox. This was not an original story: Folk tales with the same narrative structure but starring other baked good, such as pancakes, had been told orally in Europe for centuries. (Such stories are known among folklore scholars as “Fleeing Pancake” stories.) It’s not clear exactly when the gingerbread man took over the starring role in the folk tale, but the author of the St. Nicholas piece explained how he had originally heard it: ‘A servant girl from Maine told it to my children. It interested them so much that I thought it worth preserving. I asked where she found it, and she said an old lady told it to her in her childhood.’”
So there you have it; everything you didn’t know about ginger and gingerbread. After all of this, gingerbread doesn’t look so humble anymore. It’s part of an ongoing, evolving tradition that goes back at least 2,000 years, if you believe the legends. And if you’re anything like me, you’re probably thinking that a big piece of gingerbread sounds pretty damn tasty right now. So here is the recipe from the Silver Palate Cookbook that I’ve used for years and it never fails to impress. If you’re not a fan of lemon glaze, dust your cake with powdered sugar. Enjoy!