In our house, history is learned through lots of living books as well as hands-on activities. One of our favorites is cooking. We love experiencing the past by preparing historical dishes. It’s a great way to connect directly to people and places from history and keep them vibrant and alive.
One of our preferred resources for cooking our way through history is the cookbook from Bright Ideas Press that correlates with Mystery of History. There are 28 recipes to take you through the year 1460.
With the holidays quickly approaching, we decided to make the gingerbread recipe.
“And I had but one penny in the world. Thou should’st have it to buy gingerbread.” – William Shakespeare, Love’s Labours Lost
The word gingerbread originally meant preserved ginger (gingerbras). Today the definition is a cake or cookie made of molasses (treacle) and ginger.
Gingerbread traces its roots to honey cakes made by the ancient Egyptians and Greeks, cakes brought to Europe in the 10th century by Gregory of Nicopolis, an Armenian Monk. Years later, these cakes were infused with ginger, thanks to the Silk Road, and became more like the taste we know today.
Often we think of cookies or houses, but that’s not how gingerbread began. It was stiff dough that the monks pressed cookie board molds in to, creating religious designs. Homemade recipes were made with breadcrumbs, often stale, and were pressed into a square loaf, like this one we made from the history cookbook.
“You Can’t Catch Me, I’m the Gingerbread Man”
Queen Elizabeth I is credited with giving us the first “gingerbread man.” She was known for presenting visiting dignitaries gingerbread molded into their likeness, trimmed in gold. Other forms became popular and were frequently found at fairs. These treats became known as “fairings,” and their shapes would often change with the seasons.
Gingerbread as a Profession and Art Form
Gingerbread making became a creative and respected profession. Those crafting the cookie board molds were considered artists and many surviving molds are housed in museums. Guilds began in France and Germany to drive the profession and maintain quality control. The creation of these guilds meant that only professional bakers were permitted to bake gingerbread. Common folk could only make their own on Christmas and Easter.
Germany has long been synonymous with gingerbread. Nürnberg (Nuremberg) quickly became famous for its lebkuchen or German gingerbread after the establishment of its guild. It’s also where the gingerbread house was first created. You might recall a popular fairytale about them, Hansel and Gretel, the story made famous by the German Grimm brothers.
Gingerbread and the 13 Colonies
Gingerbread was so popular in Europe that it’s no wonder it found its way to the New World. The recipes varied amongst the colonies, depending on the settler’s national origin and regional ingredients available. Because of the large population of German settlers in the Pennsylvania colony, gingerbread created there most closely resembled what was made in Germany, the stiffer recipe we recognize today.
In the mid-1800s, tin cookie cutters took the place of the elaborate boards and are credited for starting the tradition of gingerbread Christmas tree ornaments.
Here are some questions to help your family learn more about gingerbread and the time period that made it popular:
- What was the Silk Road?
- Aside from ginger, what else was brought to Europe via the Silk Road?
- Who was Marco Polo?
- After Brothers Grimm published Hansel and Gretel, what effect did the widespread telling of that story have on gingerbread?
- What other stories are the Grimm brothers known for?
- What else was ginger used for in Ancient and Medieval times?
- What type of gingerbread is popular in the following countries and why? – Poland, Germany, Croatia, Scandinavia, and Russia.
- What country brought the gingerbread house tradition to America?
- Is there a Guinness record related to gingerbread?
- Watch a gingerbread creation come to life at Disney’s BoardWalk
- Map out the Silk Road
- Read some Grimm Brothers’ stories
- Make a variety of gingerbread and compare them
- Grow your own ginger in a flowerpot
- Make a pirate gingerbread ornament
How have you “cooked” your way through history?