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The makings of gingerbread men

Where did those holiday favorites originate?

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I was clawing my way through that deep catch-all drawer that every kitchen seems to have. You know, the one where you keep all the truly weird or off-sized kitchen stuff: funnels, colanders, empty honey bears, barbecue and wok implements, your great-aunt’s 1930s orange juicer, a garlic peeler that looks like a medieval torture device, Cuisinart attachments, an egg separator, and various Tupperware “bonus prizes” whose uses you can’t for the life of you remember.

I finally snagged what I was after (a package of bamboo sticks for skewering vegetables for that evening’s supper), but not until I had unearthed the well-worn but resilient frame of a gingerbread-man cookie cutter. It’s that time of year again, I thought, relishing the idea of filling my kitchen with the sweet and heady aromas of ginger and molasses. For years, I have been working on the perfect recipe: one that holds up well enough for the fun part (the decorating) but that tastes really good, too. So far, my little army of cookies has ranged from the gorgeous but completely inedible, to the tasty but far too fragile. Ten years ago, I managed to create a batch that was a total success. Unfortunately, that recipe got lost (probably shredded to death by that garlic peeler), and I have not been able to replicate it.

By the time I got back to skewering vegetables, I had begun to wonder where on Earth the notion of ginger-flavored cookies in the shapes of people had come from anyway? An interlude on the Internet and a browse through the bookstore yielded some fun facts.

Ginger’s culinary history reaches back to Greek and Roman times, but after the fall of the Roman Empire, its uses slipped into relative obscurityin the Western Hemisphere, that is. We have Marco Polo to thank for re-introducing ginger to the courts of Europe, and by Elizabethan times it was enjoying a comeback. Highly regarded in Asia for its medicinal value, it has long been employed there to relieve congestion, reduce arthritic inflammation, soothe motion sickness, and relieve digestive disorders. Remember the ginger ale your mother always gave you to cure your upset stomach?

According to Steven Stellingwerf, author of The Gingerbread Book, it might have been for its preservative properties that ginger was added to European baked goods. German bakers were the first to adapt the ancient Middle Eastern ginger-and-honey cakes to their own gingerbread, developing elaborate molds and decorations for them. Ginger imparted a hot, fresh, tantalizing flavor to those early confections, and it wasn’t long before gingerbread “dainties” became the stars of country fairs all over Europe, particularly in France and England, from the 11th to the 19th centuries.

As early as the 14th century, there were recipes for pastry castles (the precursor to today’s gingerbread house). And Queen Elizabeth I is credited for “inventing” the actual gingerbread man cookie in the 16th century when she ordered cakes spiced with ginger to be baked in the shapes of her friends and members of her court.

Gingerbread men immigrated to America with the earliest settlers, where the prevalence of molasses in this country made them standard bakeshop items. Today, the baking, decorating, and eating of gingerbread men has become a ritual that bonds families and makes memories. There is something irresistible about a pastry tube dripping with gooey white frosting, a jar of cinnamon red hots, and a pile of raisins. Everyone wants to get into the act, and the result is fun, funny, and delicious.

Of course, Americans are known for taking things to a competitive extreme and New York Restaurant School’s annual gingerbread house contest takes the cake. The official rules say the entries can be anything from a church to an igloo, so long as it’s a house. Students have submitted structures that range from cathedrals to Southern plantations. One year, the winner and close second were Carol Craig’s Trinity Church and Marie Jackson’s Tara, respectively. Marzipan saints, stained-glass windows made of melted Life Savers, doors gilded with edible gold, and gingerbread headstones in the graveyard won Craig first place; while Jackson’s Tara featured a six-column portico, flower beds of candied lavender, grass of green royal icing, and a driveway made from broken Necco wafers.

In another extreme move, gingerbread men were re-named gingerbread persons by a group of overzealous staff in one of Britain’s largest chain supermarkets. Worried about the sexist connotation, and wanting to avoid causing offense, the group acted without getting permission from their superiors. Britain’s bakers were outraged and the supermarket’s executives quickly put a stop to it. “Gingerbread men have been around in some shape or form for centuries,” said the National Association of Master Bakers. “This is absolutely ridiculous.”

Contests and controversies notwithstanding, gingerbread men, women, and children remain a holiday favorite. In the kitchen, the beaters of my electric mixer stand over a bowl, the white icing hardening even as I write. The annual decorating ritual is over and the results are waiting to be devoured.

Susan Stewart is a freelance writer and publicist who resides in San Luis Obispo and knows her way around the kitchen. Send comments to the editor at econnnolly
@newtimesslo.com.

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