The Surprising History of the Gingerbread Man
‘Tis almost the season for gingerbread. Here’s a look at the history of this holiday visitor—and his house.
It’s all Greek to us
As with many recipes, the precise origin of gingerbread is murky. The ginger root itself was first cultivated in ancient China and likely traveled to Europe via the Silk Road, according to Serious Eats. But Chinese recipes using the ingredient for a dessert weren’t developed until the tenth century.
Steven Stellingwerf, the sweets scholar who penned The Gingerbread Book, hypothesizes that the spicy treat was introduced to Western Europe by 11th-century crusaders coming home from the Mediterranean. The first known recipe came from Greece in 2400 B.C., but Michael Krondl, author of Sweet Invention: A History of Dessert, told Time that was for the cookie-shaped man—the ginger came later.
Serious Eats also mentions that an Armenian monk named Gregory of Nicopolis is credited with introducing French priests to the ways of gingerbread when he moved to Bondaroy, France, in 992. Egyptians may have been making gingery cakes for ceremonies and celebrations since the 11th century—or even earlier. Check out these 7 gingerbread recipes for the holidays.
By the Middle Ages, the treat was becoming a staple around Europe, especially in Poland, Germany, the British Isles, France, and the Netherlands. Because the Polish city of Toruń was located on an old spice route, had fertile soil, and was home to a large honeybee population, it churned out gingerbread that featured honey; flour (rye, wheat, or a blend); and spices, including cinnamon, ginger, black pepper, cloves, and nutmeg, according to the New York Times. Anise, cardamom, allspice, and a little coriander were sometimes mixed in. Other early versions contained ground almonds, breadcrumbs, and rosewater as well. English cooks started transitioning from honey to sugar by the end of the 16th century and molasses by the mid-17th century. According to the Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America, butter and cream were being added to 18th-century versions that “very much” resembled “the modern gingerbread cookies of today.”
Smithsonian.com reports that gingerbread flowers, birds, armor, animals, spiritual emblems, and kings became standard festival and fair food throughout medieval Europe. Cities in France and England hosted “gingerbread fairs” for centuries and the cookies served there were called “fairings,” according to PBS. The shapes du jour changed with the seasons.
What’s in a name?
In Europe, the term “gingerbread” meant preserved or candied ginger root until the 15th century, according to Serious Eats. According to Smithsonian.com, the name gingebras (from the old French) began to designate the bread toward the end of the 15th century.
In Poland, the New York Times says they call gingerbread cookies—including the men—pierniki, a name derived from the Polish words pieprz and pierny, which mean “peppery.”
The German version of gingerbread cookies is known as Lebkuchen. People have been baking Lebkuchen for well over 400 years and it’s a staple of street fairs. German cookies are often heart-shaped and decorated with names and messages of love written in icing. Check out who inspired the names of 16 more iconic foods.
The Royal connection
Gingerbread was usually made in molds of all shapes and sizes, but Queen Elizabeth I is credited with jump-starting the reign of the gingerbread men. According to a Time interview with Carole Levin, director of medieval studies at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln, Elizabeth’s reign was marked by elaborate dinners. For one such feast, she instructed her royal gingerbread maker (yep) to make gingerbread men that looked like the foreign dignitaries and the court’s other guests of honor. (This might also be where the use of gold-leaf decorations and gumdrop buttons got their start.) Levin suggests that the pastry ploy was part of her “clever” diplomacy, because who wouldn’t be wooed by such a sweet stroke of the ego? Whether or not the strategy worked for the Queen, the trend took off.
While the “man” is easily the most popular shape in America, other countries still sell a lot of gingery goodies in other forms—and sometimes stuffed with jam. For instance, the Katarzynka, or Little Kate, is a scalloped version popular in Poland. One legend on the source of Little Kate says that a sick baker asked his only daughter Catherine to make the gingerbread for him. When she could not find the right medallion mold, she cut circles and lined them up in the oven in rows, which melted together. Here are some royal family holiday traditions you might just want to steal.
Master and serve it
P Maxwell Photography/Shutterstock
The rise of gingerbread men could also be linked back to the fact that gingerbread masters tended to be men: The position called for working with big batches of dense, heavy dough, according to the New York Times. Perhaps they were just creating cookies in their image. Masters go through extensive training, not unlike a winemaker; coming up with the perfect spice blends is precise work. Selecting which dough to use and when relies on smell and touch. Also like wine, the dough is aged. Professional bakeries will let batches of dough rest for up to a year in a large metal bin.
Sweets for your sweet
Several romantic superstitions surround gingerbread men, according to Smithsonian.com. At tournaments and jousts, a piece of gingerbread given to a knight was thought to bring good luck. Women on the hunt for a hubby would eat the cookie men as they believed it would improve their chances of finding a mate, according to Bustle.com. It also worked the opposite way: An article in Time reports that folk-medicine practitioners—often referred to as witches or magicians—sold the cookies to lovelorn ladies, promising that if they convinced the man of their choice to eat a special gingerbread man it would make him fall in love with them. Learn the history of another Christmas tradition, hanging stockings, here.
Home sweet home
The general agreement is that gingerbread houses originated in Germany in the 16th century, according to PBS. It is, however, unclear whether the idea of making the confectionery homes developed and became popular before or after the Brothers Grimm published the tale of Hansel and Gretel and the witch’s delectable dwelling. Either way, be prepared to build your own sweet dwelling: December 12 is National Gingerbread House Day.
How gingerbread houses became a Christmas tradition—or why the flavor and scent of ginger is part of the winter holidays in the first place—is a puzzle. One reason may be that only gingerbread masters were allowed to make the stuff most of the year—except at Christmas and Easter, reports Serious Eats.
It could also be related to the medicinal properties of the root. Krondl told Time it could “at least, in part, be attributed to the belief that [eating] spices heated you up in the winter.” Another explanation may be related to all the excess at the holidays: Ginger is good at taming upset stomachs, a solution for all the overeating and drinking, according to PBS. Check out more surprising health benefits of ginger.
There are not one but two museums dedicated to the sweet and spicy treat in Toruń, Poland. The Museum of Toruń Gingerbread opened in 2015 inside a former 19th-century gingerbread factory owned by Gustaw Weese who exported his treats as far as Japan and Australia. Guests can see historic molds and machinery and learn how gingerbread is made, packaged, advertised, and served. The Living Museum of Gingerbread invites visitors into a medieval kitchen to try their hand at making dough themselves under the tutelage of the Gingerbread Master and the Gingerbread Witch. Check out some more Christmas traditions from around the world you’ll want to try.
Big screen breakthrough
The Gingerbread Man, a.k.a Gingy, is the most famous of his kind, having appeared in four Shrek films, TV specials, and the Shrek Broadway musical. He was created by the Muffin Man, attended the Cookie Academy, married a gingerbread woman, and had his legs ripped off and his gumdrop buttons threatened by Lord Farquaad, who was torturing him for information on the whereabouts of his fairy-tale friends. Gingy was voiced by Conrad Vernon most of the time; occasionally actor and comedian Jon Lovitz stepped in.