Cakey or crunchy, shaped like a little man or a huge candy mansion, gingerbread is a delicious hallmark of the December holidays in many parts of the world. For those who are eternally grateful to whoever made it acceptable to eat pieces of cookie so large that they resemble the side of a house, the history of gingerbread is a great story. At the least, it makes for intelligent conversation at parties, to overcome prejudice against people with cookie crumbs on our shirts.
Ginger, the essential ingredient, is a root known for millennia in the Middle and Far East. It was, and still is, considered medicine to combat nausea and inflammation. Spices were highly precious until only a couple of hundred years ago, used as currency between traders and bargaining chips between warring countries. One book claims that the earliest known recipe for gingerbread is from 2400 BC, but it’s one of those factoids that swirls around the internet without support.
With the establishment of a network of trade routes between Asia and the Medeterranean between the 15th and 17th centuries—known as the Silk Road—spices were more widely introduced to fascinated Europeans. Spices were a sign of wealth, sophistication, and exoticism in Europe.
Queen Elizabeth I is the first known person to hand out gingerbread men. She offered them to visiting diplomats, as a sign of England’s wealth and power. It was a funny choice, considering the way that her mother Ann Boleyn died, and that most of us now remove the heads from gingerbread men first by biting them off. This was the same time period that inspired Shakespeare’s quote: “An I had but one penny in the world, thou shouldst have it to buy gingerbread,” from Love’s Labour’s Lost.
For a quick and dirty timeline on the history of gingerbread, check out our Text On Screen video team’s work:
Also around the same time as Queen Elizabeth’s cooks were serving gingerbread men, other areas like modern Germany and France were developing their own gingerbread crafts. As ginger became more widely available, it became more accessible for people to bake and experiment with.
To this day, whether a gingerbread is crispy or cakey or gooey or dense depends on which area of the world the recipe comes from. In Nuremberg, it’s hard and crunchy, and traditionally dunked in port wine. In Russia, gingerbread is sometimes stuffed with fruit preserves or nuts. Generally, all gingerbread will still include a variety of spices, like mace, cloves, and cinnamon, and is usually sweetened with molasses or honey.
“An I had but one penny in the world, thou shouldst have it to buy gingerbread.”—Love’s Labour’s Lost, William Shakespeare
Then in 1812 came the Grimm brothers’ story, Hansel and Gretel. Food historians debate over whether the story made gingerbread houses so wildly popular, or if gingerbread houses were a trend on the rise before the story, but the popularity of decorated cookie houses and the story are forever entwined.
If you’ve never read a Grimm tale in its original published version, don’t do it in front of young children—they are all kinds of scary and twisted. Hansel and Gretel’s plot: There is widespread starvation in Hansel and Gretel’s town, so their parents bring the kids into the woods and abandon them there to starve to death so that the parents can have enough to eat. I know. In the woods, they meet a cannibalistic hag who built a house out of candy to lure children in so she can cook and eat them. The house’s main delicious attraction? The whole thing is made out of gingerbread.
Gingerbread’s popularity, combined with the story’s (to me, inexplicable) appeal brought about a surge of gingerbread-house making and decorating in Germany, particularly to celebrate Christmastime. Perhaps parents were making a symbolic cautionary Krampus (see Who Is Krampus? Explaining the Horrific Christmas Devil) house for the kids around the holidays, a warning to be good—or else.
Interest in gingerbread spread, including to the United States, where George Washington’s mother wrote one of the earliest recipes. She served to her son’s lieutenant general during the Revolution, the Marquis de Lafayette. The gingerbread was eventually known as Lafayette gingerbread to honor its namesake who was, as the musical Hamilton puts it, “the Lancelot of the revolutionary set.” He liked it with a mint julep. (Here’s an updated recipe.)
Today gingerbread cookies and cakes and houses pop up in all kinds of iterations, from movie characters to several-room national monuments. The world’s largest was made in 2012 in Texas. It was 60 feet-long and required a building permit. It contained 35 million calories.
Eating gingerbread this season is practically a duty, breaking into one of the season’s most storied, historic, and global desserts—in case you needed an excuse.