15 Dec 2021
By Kathi Ferguson
From edible houses to soft, spiced loaves of bread, to snappy cookies, to the eye-catching gingerbread men, no confection symbolizes the holidays quite like gingerbread. Whatever shape or style, the aroma of cloves, nutmeg, cinnamon, and of course, ginger, is intoxicating.
As with many culinary trends, there is history behind them, and the origin of gingerbread bears no exception. The word “gingerbread” itself comes from the Old French “gigembras,” which means “gingered food.” Although we Americans have been baking gingerbread for more than 200 years, an early form of this tasty treat can be traced to the ancient Greeks and Egyptians who used it for ceremonial purposes.
In Europe, gingerbread made its debut when 11th-century Crusaders brought back ginger from the Middle East for the aristocrats' cooks to experiment with. Now widely used, ginger originated in Maritime Southeast Asia, and was one of the first spices exported from Asia through the spice trade. It used to be a universally loved flavor in cooking, partly because people didn't make sweets unless they could afford white sugar and the less-expensive molasses. As ginger and other spices became more affordable to the masses, gingerbread caught on and the availability of spices would vary its recipes. However, the use of butter and cream in 18th century recipes transformed gingerbread to the way it is today. And we all know everything tastes better with butter!
Monks from the Middle Ages deserve credit for the idea of using gingerbread for decorative designs. After creating a paste of breadcrumbs, honey, and ginger, and rolling the mixture out, the monks often carved biblical scenes or images of saints before baking it. Over time, the custom caught on, and gingerbread cookies in the shape of animals, flowers, birds, or kings and queens became a common sight at medieval fairs throughout Europe.
The earliest account of person-shaped gingerbread cookies dates back to the 16th century. Queen Elizabeth I was known to surprise visiting dignitaries with gingerbread cookies designed in their likeness. These royal cookies often featured elaborate gold leaf designs and intricate details. We still call the fancy architectural details on Victorian-era houses “gingerbread.”
The classic gingerbread houses became popular during 19th century Germany, most likely inspired by the Brothers Grimm’s publication of “Hansel and Gretel” – a story about a witch’s cottage made of cookies and candy. Question remains whether or not gingerbread houses were a result of the popular fairy tale, or vice versa. These houses were sometimes referred to as “hexenhaeusle” (witches’ houses) and are also called “knusperhaeuschen” or "houses for nibbling at.” It is thought that the early German settlers brought this “housing trend” to America.
Gingerbread has gone through many changes over the years, having taken on a variety of different forms and textures. But one thing is certain…gingerbread-making warms many a kitchen, many a heart, and is still primarily seen as a distinctive symbol of this joyous holiday season.