The History of Gingerbread—More Than a Holiday Staple
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Holidays aren’t the same without gingerbread. Every year, I would get a gingerbread house kit from the store and decorate it. While we would just display the house in all its sugary glory on the counter until it is time to throw it out, others love to bake up gingerbread men and decorate them for more immediate consumption. Either way, gingerbread is a classic and fun part of the holidays. What one might not know, though, is gingerbread is a food that has a long storied history that goes back hundreds of years.
The exact origin of gingerbread is a bit ambiguous. Some scholars believe has its first roots in Ancient Greece, with the first recipe recorded in 2400 BC (PBS). Chinese recipes began to crop up in the 10th century. Allegedly, gingerbread was introduced to medieval Europe in 992 AD through the Armenian Monk Gregory of Nicopolis, who taught French Christian bakers how to make it (The Guardian). The European style of gingerbread was made possible through the spice trade, since ginger originated in China.
The gingerbread we eat today is different from the original gingerbread of old. For instance, an early form of gingerbread used almonds, stale breadcrumbs, rosewater, sugar, and ginger (The Spruce Eats). Meanwhile, the gingerbread we eat now is a baked good that incorporates spices such as ginger, anise, nutmeg, and cinnamon. Before refrigeration, crumbled gingerbread was sometimes used in recipes to mask the odor of rotting meat. Gingerbread was a popular fair and festival food among Europeans. The cookies would be styled in shapes such as birds, flowers, or armor (Smithsonian). Ladies would give knights gingerbread men for good luck. There was even evidence of gingerbread-making guilds, which showed a sense of reverence for the trade. Queen Elizabeth I was credited with being the first to bring gingerbread men onto the scene. To establish good will with dignitaries, each would be presented with a gingerbread man with their likeness decorated onto it (The Spruce Eats).
Gingerbread houses were popularized through the Brothers Grimm tale “Hansel and Gretel,” where two children discover a house entirely made out of gingerbread and candy, but the tradition of gingerbread houses began in Germany in the 16th century (PBS). These houses were elaborate, decorated in foil and gold leaf. It is currently unclear whether the fairy tale started the trend, or people were already making gingerbread houses. Either way, gingerbread houses spread across Europe and the world. Even today, the Omni Grove Park Inn in Asheville, North Carolina hosts the National Gingerbread House Competition, where contestants show off their most artful and elaborate gingerbread houses (Omni Grove Park Inn).
Gingerbread has had a long and storied history. From ancient Greeks to China, to medieval Europe, gingerbread has come in many forms and has been incorporated into many traditions. Instead of being the holiday staple it has come to be today, it has been used in international relations, food preservation, and festival fare. So, next time you get to enjoy building a gingerbread house or decorating a gingerbread man, take a moment to appreciate the centuries-long legacy of such a cookie.