Run, run, fast as you can,
You can’t catch me, I’m the gingerbread man!
~ The Gingerbread Man, a fairy tale
Even though The Gingerbread Man in this fairytale met an untimely and gruesome end, children for generations have grown up knowing this rhyme. Making and decorating Gingerbread Men has been a family tradition for many many years. Ginger is one of the flavors most associated with holidays. Baking gingerbread cookies and decorating gingerbread houses have long been holiday traditions in many American households. The earliest Christmas trees were decorated with pieces of gingerbread.
There were Medieval festivals known as ‘Gingerbread Fairs’ where Gingerbread cookies were sold in different shapes and sizes. The term ‘gingerbread’ in those times meant ‘Preserved Ginger’. The Gingerbread House dates back to Germany in the 1500s. In the 1600’s Nuremberg, Germany became known as the "gingerbread capital of the world". In the early 1700’s the brothers Grimm wrote Hansel and Gretal. It is thought that the house made of sweets the children found in the forest was based on a decorated Gingerbread House. Even Shakespeare referred to the treats in his play "Love's Labor's Lost"And I had but one penny in the world, thou should'st have it to buy gingerbread.
As early as the Middle Ages, Gingerbread cookies were being made in different shapes.
This spice has a long and interesting history. Believe it or not, Elizabeth I is credited for the first, ‘Gingerbread Man’. She served some ginger cookies to court visitors designed in their likeness. Needless to say they were most impressed. Unlike the royal icing, red hots, and other candies used today to decorate gingerbread men, Queen Elizabeth decorated her cookies with gold gilt.
The spice ginger originated in China. It was used to flavor foods, to bake in cakes and cookies, and to settle upset stomachs. Even today mothers will offer you ginger ale for any gastric distress you may be suffering. (Henry III took ginger hoping it would prevent the plaque.) The Crusaders brought it to Europe in the 11th century when trade started with the orient.
Ginger was brought to America by the early colonists. There were recipes for the harder cookies ‘Ginger Snaps’ as well softer ginger bread cookies and gingerbread cakes. There are stories such as George Washington’s mother serving her famous gingerbread to the Marquis de Lafayette.
Then there is the term ‘Gingerbread Architecture’. Research is not clear as to how gingerbread relates to this style architectural trim. Often Gingerbread and Victorian are interchangeable terms in construction and design. There is the story that it goes back to the tradition of nuns in Europe baking ginger biscuits (to aid in digestion) were decorated to be used as window decorations. Personally, I think this is a stretch.