What is the History of Gingerbread?

Sheri Cyprus

The first gingerbread is thought to have been made by Catholic monks in Europe for special holidays and festivals. England, France, and especially Germany were known to eat and celebrate with these treats. Ginger was called "zingebar" in Latin, "gingerbras" in Old French, and "gingerbread" in Medieval England. "Lebkuchen" is the German word.

Molasses, which is often used to sweeten gingerbread.
Molasses, which is often used to sweeten gingerbread.

Until the 15th century, "gingerbread" referred only to preserved ginger itself. Ginger was found to have preservative qualities, and around this time, it began to be used in cakes and cookies. Crusaders returning to Europe from the Middle East brought back spices such as ginger and Catholic monks formed it into cakes and pressed it into molds. Gingerbread also became a popular treat at European fairs and was added to meat to preserve it and help cover up the strong odor of aging meat.

Cinnamon is a common spice used in gingerbread.
Cinnamon is a common spice used in gingerbread.

Gingerbread was not baked in homes in the 15th century, but rather was made by government-recognized guilds. Nuremberg, Germany was the location of the best known guild. The German guild was famous for elaborately detailing the lebkuchen with gold paint or with icing. The guild was called the Lebkuchner and was formed in 1643 as a means of quality-control reasons as well as a way to limit competition in making the gingerbread.

Nutmeg is often included in gingerbread.
Nutmeg is often included in gingerbread.

The quality of the Nuremberg guild's lebkuchen was so high that it was even used as currency for paying city taxes. It was also considered a gift worthy of heads of state and royalty. Lebkuchen gingerbread is still sold in Nuremberg today.

Cloves are often used to season gingerbread.
Cloves are often used to season gingerbread.

Gingerbread cut into shapes, especially hearts, and tied with ribbon became a popular treat sold in fairs throughout Europe. Human and animal figures were also popular. The Brothers Grimm fairy tale, Hansel and Gretel, inspired the German "hexenhaeusle," or witch's house. "Lebkuchenhaeusle," the gingerbread house, was made with large slabs of lebkuchen and decorated with sweets.

Cardamom is often added to gingerbread.
Cardamom is often added to gingerbread.

The first gingerbread in the United States is thought to have been brought by Swiss Catholic monks who founded the St. Meinrad Archabbey in Indiana in 1854. Monks gave gingerbread to the sick and baked it for holiday celebrations. Baking cookies and houses to celebrate the Christmas holiday became a tradition in the United States that is still popular today.

"Gingerbread" once meant only preserved ginger.
"Gingerbread" once meant only preserved ginger.

American bakers often sweeten gingerbread with molasses, while British bakers may use syrup and brown sugar. Germans usually sweeten lebkuchen with honey, which is the traditional sweetener used by the guild in Nuremberg, an area with many forests containing beehives. Aside from ginger, cinnamon is the next most common spice used in gingerbread. Cloves, nutmeg, cardamom, and sometimes anise are other spices commonly found in many recipes.

The story of Hansel and Gretel, collected by the Brothers Grimm, inspired the gingerbread house.
The story of Hansel and Gretel, collected by the Brothers Grimm, inspired the gingerbread house.
The first gingerbread is thought to have been made by Catholic monks in Europe.
The first gingerbread is thought to have been made by Catholic monks in Europe.

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Discussion Comments

anon132403

There are recipes for gingerbread from the 1790s, in cookbooks by British authors, which are found in America today. It's unlikely that the books came to America much later than they were printed but possible. We'll have to be on the lookout for diaries and letters that mention them.

anon120264

Gingerbread was known and made in the United States well before 1854. Sarah Jessica Hale, the editor of Godey's Lady's Book, published a book called "The Good Housekeeper" in 1841 that contains multiple recipes for different kinds of gingerbread, including soft gingerbread and hard gingerbread (to roll out and cut into shapes). You can buy reprints of the book from Dover Books.

anon47027

this was a good writing I thought. But i'm writing a speech on gingerbread that has to be three minutes long. Do you know any other websites that have more information on this stuff for my speech?

AuthorSheriC

You're welcome!

mnemosyne

Oh, Culinary Historians of New York-good idea! I know they have some pretty good culinary schools there too, so that makes sense as a source. I'll look into The Gingerbread book as well. Thanks again.

AuthorSheriC

Steven Stellingwerf has authored a highly-rated book called The Gingerbread Book. It has a history of gingerbread plus many recipes including one credited to George Washington's mother, Mary.

AuthorSheriC

Thanks for your comments, Mnemosyne. I did use online sources, but it's been some time since I wrote this article so all of my sources are no longer handy. But I know that one was the December issue of the Ohio State University's newsletter - onCampusOnline Another great source was the Culinary Historians of New York. Perhaps you could Google them to find a phone number and they could direct you to more information/sources? I hope this helps!

mnemosyne

very interesting...where did you find sources for this article? I can't seem to find any books at my library and there is not too much online. Any suggestions would help, thanks.

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