The Sweet History of Christmas Gingerbread Cookies

Ah, the smell of winter gingerbread!  There is nothing like it.  Whether it’s a soft cake topped with whipped cream or a rich decorated cookie, it’s simply a must for any Christmas feast.

But have you ever wondered where gingerbread in its many forms came from?  Well, it’s a great story that ranges from the tables of medieval knights to George Washington’s mother’s  kitchen counter.

Culinary history first records gingerbread in its firm “cookie” form in the Middle East.  During the 11th Century the knights of the Crusade (including the noble Templars) encountered gingerbread in the markets of Acrea and Antioch.

They liked gingerbread enough to bring it back to Europe as one of the treasure of East. Soon there were “Gingerbread Fairs” throughout Europe where the now decorated cookies were made in a wide variety of shapes from flowers to knighty armor.

Rather quickly during this period the gingerbread dough was shaped into human form, especially male. Ladies, married and single, would buy them at the fair, eating them in the hopes of another child or a handsome first husband.   

By1598 Shakespeare himself was in favor of gingerbread when he wrote in Love's Labors Lost, An I had but one penny in the world, thou shouldst have it to buy ginger-bread.” Not a bad recommendation from the master of the English language.

Even George Washington’s mother Mary Bell made gingerbread cookies.  Her pre-revolution cookies were English kings (off with their heads!) and brightly decorated American eagles after the revolution which she served to the esteemed General Lafayette.

There are still holiday gingerbread markets held in Germany called "Lebkuchen Fairs" that sell gingerbread cookies frosted with a sugary message such as “All I need is you” and “You’re the best”. All the hanging hearts and candies can’t help but remind you of Hansel and Gretel but with no witch present to spoil the fun.

Today any shape that pleases the cook (or cookie eater) is fine. Gumdrops and M&Ms have been added – the more the merrier.  Just don’t forget the raisin eyes. Good fortune is looking for you!

Your Culinary World copyright Ana Kinkaid/Peter Schlagel 2010

Posted on December 20, 2010 .