Gingerbread Houses And The Men Who Live In Them?
Gingerbread house and gingerbread men. Source: (history-behind-game-of-thrones.com)
While it’s not uncommon to hear parents telling their children not to play with their food, there are certain traditions in which playing with food is encouraged. From gingerbread houses to the gingerbread men (who probably don’t actually live in the gingerbread houses), it seems there is just something about gingerbread that demands it be molded and decorated before being eaten.
Ginger root was originally cultivated five thousand years ago in China, where it was believed to have medicinal and magical properties, likely due to its ability to preserve flour and meat. It was later baked into crisps which, with the addition of butter and cream in the 18th century, evolved into the cookies, also called fairings due to their popularity at fairs, of Western Europe. These fairings were often decorated, much like the gingerbread houses and men today. However, the exact origin of gingerbread is uncertain.
Some believe the first recipe emerged in Greece circa 2400 B.C. Some have traced gingerbread back to the honey cakes of ancient Greece. Others link it back only as far as 992 A.D. when an Armenian monk named Gregory of Nicopolis passed the recipe along to Christian bakers in France. A recipe for “gyngerbrede” appeared in a 15th-century cookbook but did not actually include ginger in the list of ingredients. Its texture was more like toffee than bread. Nuns in Sweden were known to bake gingerbread to relieve indigestion during the 15th century.
The origin of gingerbread houses also cannot be traced to a single source. Gingerbread constructions seem to be as old as gingerbread itself, dating back to ancient Greece and China. What is known for sure is that the gingerbread houses of Europe, and later North America, originated in 19th century Germany and were inspired by the tale of Hansel and Gretel, which was published by the Brothers Grimm in 1812. The original version of the story described the witch’s house as being “built of bread, and roofed with cakes, and the window was of transparent sugar.” The line would later be changed to say it was built of gingerbread. Gingerbread was already being used to make artistic creations so it was only natural that bakers would attempt to recreate the house from the story.
Before there were gingerbread houses, there were gingerbread men (evidence on whether early gingerbread men lived in caves is inconclusive.) Historians tend to agree that gingerbread men began in the 16th century during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, who was known to host dinner parties during which marzipan was served in the shape of fruits, castles, and birds. She would also have gingerbread men designed to look like important guests. This is believed to be the inspiration behind Shakespeare’s mention of gingerbread in his comedy Love’s Labour’s Lost. During this same time period, gingerbread men were used by women in pagan circles as a sort of love potion. They believed if a young woman could get the man of her choice to eat one then he would fall in love with her.
Today, the making of gingerbread houses and gingerbread men is primarily considered a Christmas tradition. There are several likely reasons for this. One is that gingerbread constructions were often made as gifts. Another is that gingerbread cookies themselves are a common staple at Christmas. There is also probably some significance in the fact that gingerbread houses are but one of many Christmas traditions to come from Germany.
Modern gingerbread house construction has inspired competition. The record for the biggest house is held by Traditions Club in Texas. Their house, built on November 30, 2013, was nearly 60 feet tall and over 40 feet wide, and contained 35.8 million calories. The biggest village was built in 2017 by Jon Lovitch, a sous-chef at the Marriott Marquis Hotel in New York. It would have surrendered that record to the Gingerbread Town of Bergen, Norway, - which had illuminated buildings, ships, cars, and a train - had it not been disqualified for having non-edible parts. Then there is the town of Dinkelsbühl in southern Germany, sometimes referred to as a real-life gingerbread town, which is known for its gingerbread as well as its well-preserved historic house which look remarkably like gingerbread houses, though they are not actually made of gingerbread (no word on whether the men living in them are made of gingerbread though).