I was just at the grocery shop, buying some comfort food to be ready for a low-activity weekend, when I saw a box of gingerbread. It was not, however, the one I liked from the brand Prosper. After a quick search, I learned that the production stopped. It’s been so long that I didn’t even realize it. Well, at least, it led me to explore the history of gingerbread out of curiosity, because now I want to make my own (will see how it turns out).
Who Invented Gingerbread?
Before answering that question, let’s talk about what is gingerbread? Nowadays, the term “gingerbread” describes a wide range of baked foods that are frequently spiced with ginger and other ingredients like cinnamon, cloves, and nutmeg. Cookies, cakes, loaves, and even gingerbread buildings can be made from gingerbread. These delectable sweets are known and referred to as “gingerbread” all throughout the world. As a result of their regional or cultural associations, some types of gingerbread may also go by special names, such as ginger snaps, gingerbread men, or gingerbread cake. With that in mind, let’s go back to the beginning.
The use of ginger as flavoring dates back to ancient times, and gingerbread finds its earliest traces in Greek cuisine around 2400 BC. Chinese recipes for gingerbread emerged during the 10th century, while in Medieval Europe, ginger cookies became prominent features of Northern European Christmas tables. These cookies were precursors to the gingerbread we know today.
In Europe, the British are the ones who introduced ginger biscuits like “ginger snaps” and gingernuts. They were traditionally made by melting treacle, golden syrup, brown sugar, and butter before adding flour. They were not the only ones as we can also find German gingerbread biscuits, known as Pfeffernusse, and Scandinavian variations like pepparkaka and peppernott. These biscuits often featured various spices, including cinnamon, cloves, aniseed, nutmeg, and cardamom.
Why is it Called Gingerbread?
Despite the name “gingerbread,” the cake bears little resemblance to bread. Originally known as “gingerbras” in the 13th century, a name that was borrowed from Old French and meant “preserved ginger,” the term gradually shifted to “gingerbread” by the mid-14th century. Early recipes, like those found in the 15th-century cookery book “Good Cookery,” describe gingerbread made with breadcrumbs boiled in honey and flavored with ginger and other spices. Over time, treacle replaced honey as the sweetener, shaping gingerbread into its modern form.
Gingerbread gained popularity at Medieval fairs throughout Europe. Those were of the hard cookie type, often adorned with gold leaf and shaped like animals, kings, and queens, delighted visitors.
Speaking of royalty, the history of the gingerbread is famously connected to Queen Elizabeth I who played a role in popularizing these intricately decorated cookies, inspiring their use in mimicking visiting dignitaries at her court. The cookies became known as “fairings” and gingerbread festivals were referred to as “Gingerbread Fairs.” In England, the term “to take the gilt off of gingerbread” originated from the gold leaf decorations commonly used on gingerbread cookies–more bout this here.
Why is Gingerbread a Symbol of Christmas?
The tradition of gingerbread houses can be traced back to 16th-century Germany. These edible marvels, with their cookie walls and decorative foil and gold leaf, became intricately associated with Christmas festivities. The story of Hansel and Gretel, popularized by the Brothers Grimm, further entrenched gingerbread houses in the Christmas tradition. It remains unclear whether the fairy tale inspired the creation of gingerbread houses or vice versa.
Gingerbread in America
English colonists brought gingerbread to the shores of the New World. These cookies played intriguing roles, with reports of using gingerbread to sway Virginia voters during elections.
Amelia Simmons’ “American Cookery,” the first American cookbook published in 1796, featured three gingerbread recipes, including a soft variety baked in loaves—reflect the early American approach to gingerbread, highlighting the use of molasses or treacle as a sweetener and the inclusion of spices like ginger and cinnamon, which give the gingerbread its distinctive flavor. Mary Ball Washington, George Washington’s mother, even served her special gingerbread recipe, known as Gingerbread Lafayette, to the Marquis de Lafayette during his visit to their Virginia home.