Biting into a crisp, spicy gingerbread cookie is the quintessential holiday experience for me. Growing up in Green Bay, Wisconsin, the winters were bitter and wicked, long and dark and I think its the contrast of the piquant gingerbread against the wicked cold that makes the gingerbread cookie such a ritual in my mind. Today my gingerbread appreciation is not just a little nostalgic, if scarce.
Today when I think about gingerbread I imagine myself cozied up next to a warm fire, ensconced in a handmade afghan,accompanied by a hot toddy. That notion, however, is purely romantic given my current residential location (Honolulu).
But while I daydream of my ginger fantasy, I wonder..how did gingerbread get to be part of our traditions? Given the long-held belief that ginger is good for digestion, it isn’t all that surprising that gingerbread appeals to us as a comfort food. Its origins however, are not so comfortable. Once again, the Crusaders play a role in our culinary history- around the 15th century, ginger started appearing in cookies, like all sweets, the gingerbread cookie evolved. 17th century Germany saw gingerbread cookies so treasured, a guild of licensed bakers ensured their perfection. Why not? The English had their bread guild..the Germans had their gingerbread guild. The perfectionists that they are, the Germans take “bread” and make it better. It should come as no surprise that it was the Germans who took gingerbread (called lebkuchen) to new heights by decorating the cookies with gold or icing. Lebkuchen were so highly prized that it was even occasionally used as currency; Kings and heads-of-state often received gingerbread as gifts.
All of this puts into context the brothers Grimm story (Hansel and Gretel) that included a gingerbread house. Imagine how enticing a house of gingerbread, food of kings, would be to poor, starving children. A house that satiates the culinary desires as well as the financial. THAT would be a house worth owning, even in today’s market.
From that noble beginning, the monks of St. Meinrad Arch Abbey in Indiana are credited with bringing gingerbread to the United States around 1854. Americans were relative latecomers to the gingerbread party, but that didn’t stop us from wholeheartedly embracing the tradition and incorporating it into our own holiday traditions!
I posted recipe and how-to for a gingerbread house in the recipe section of this blog. I’d love to hear from anyone that makes a gingerbread house! I’ll post pictures if you send them!