GINGERBREAD. The word "gingerbread" has evolved in English over the past five hundred years to include a highly diversified range of ginger-flavored foods. In its original medieval meaning, gingerbread was characterized as a "bread stuff," which meant something edible, a dry finger food consumed as an adjunct to the meal, although in this case unusual in taste and texture, and commonly eaten as a medicine due to its effect on the bodily humors. The earliest references to gingerbread in medieval English cookery books are quite clear on this point, since they refer to brittle gingerbread preparations made mostly of ginger and sugar. In short, medieval English gingerbread was a medical candy, but parallel to this was a large family of honey-based cakes or cookies known in German as Lebkuchen. Lebkuchen are the central subject of this discussion. In English they were known as honey cakes.
Honey cakes trace their ancestry to ancient Rome. Among food historians the general consensus is to define the Lebkuchen as a highly spiced honey cake baked in a clebanus or portable oven. The literal meaning of Lebkuchen is thought to be 'clebanus cake', something baked originally in the ancient Roman dining room and served directly to the guests. The Romans often baked honey cakes in the shape of a heart, and for this reason their honey cakes were associated with weddings and, by extension, were edible love tokens on a par with the modern box of luxury chocolates. Gingerbread has branched out into several types of cakes or cookies, not all of them sweetened with honey.
By the 1500s English gingerbreads had evolved into highly spiced crisp cookies, like the German Lebkuchen ornamented with stamped designs or cut into innumerable shapes and patterns. These cookies were popular during the winter months and were usually dipped in wine or cider when eaten. This is the so-called crisp ginger cake of colonial North America, which survives in the commercial ginger snap cookies. Gingerbread cookies were also popular as Christmas tree ornaments. With the introduction of inexpensive tin cookie cutters during the late nineteenth century and the ease with which cookies could be baked in cast-iron stoves, ornamental gingerbread cookies became a fixed feature of domestic cookery.
The introduction of saleratus and other chemical leavenings during this same period also changed American gingerbread, and soft gingerbread or gingerbread cake developed. In the United States the term "ginger-bread" is more commonly associated with a chemically leavened spice cake than with the crisp cookies of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
Prior to becoming a branch of domestic cookery, gingerbread baking of all kinds was generally the preserve of the professional baker. In many European countries gingerbread bakers were a distinct subunit of the bakers' guild. Since no guilds existed in America, this pattern was not continued there, yet in the German-speaking communities of Pennsylvania and Maryland individuals continued this specialized tradition until the beginning of the twentieth century.
One of the important adjuncts of professional gingerbread baking was the carving of the molds used to stamp the cookies with patterns. Both the carving of molds and the baking of the gingerbreads were male tasks, although the baker's wife and daughters often worked as decorators. The most elaborate gingerbreads were also iced, so the ornamental images were not only raised on the surface of the cookies but were also visually colorful. Bakers called this "applying makeup." Cookies were also gilded with gold leaf, the origin of the idiom "to take the gilt off the gingerbread." The decorated gingerbreads were often kept rather than eaten, used as wall decorations or put on display in a glass cabinet. Many bakeries made show cookies of giant sizes for their shop windows as part of Christmas advertising. The gingerbread bakers of Belgium and Holland were well known for such large cookies, and considerable literature describes the various schools of mold carving that once existed in those countries.
A discussion of gingerbread and its history invariably turns to a discussion of the molds because the finest ones represent a branch of popular art that has been recognized and studied by numerous European museums. Some of the best-known centers of mold carving were Lyon (France), Nürnberg (Germany), Ulm (Germany), Toruń; (Poland), Pesth (Hungary), and Prague (Czech Republic). The Bread Museum in Ulm, Germany, and the Ethnographic Museum in Toruń, Poland, possess two of the largest mold collections in Europe.
Molds were an important means for mass producing a design. But to make honey cakes, bakers had also to process honey by removing it from the combs. Thus in the workshops where honey and beeswax were processed, two different types of molds were used, one for ginger-breads and one for wax figures. For the production of gingerbreads, the molds were carved into wooden blocks. The wood had to be hard, for example, oak or boxwood, since a single mold had to serve for the production of thousands of gingerbreads.
Carved molds were made either by special carvers or by the gingerbread bakers themselves. The bakers had to learn how to carve molds during their apprenticeships and as journeymen. Of course not everyone had great talent for carving, but at least every baker could produce molds as they were needed, for instance, when a mold was too worn out for further use and had to be replaced, when a new motif was in demand, or when a special design had to be made to order.
The characteristic ingredients for the gingerbread dough were honey, flour, and potash. The dough was normally made in the fall and allowed to undergo an enzyme reaction over a period of two or three months. The dough became soft and rubbery, but it was also rather dry in texture and required considerable strength to be handled. It was pressed into the mold and then "beaten out," that is, the baker slapped and punched the backside of the mold until the gingerbread relief fell out. One journeyman or the master baker produced hundreds of cookies a day. In the oven the cookies with their raised patterns were dried at a low temperature rather than baked in order to preserve the image and keep it from warping.
The range of motifs was wide, and even a simple workshop in the country had a number of different motifs in stock. Foremost among them were hearts, babies, and riders, which can be called classical motifs. Next are the motifs referring to the great feasts of the Christian calendar, such as Christmas and Easter, and the great events in human life, especially the wedding, which was the climax in the life cycle for the individual as well as for the community. When noble families combined forces by marrying their children, usually a so-called "allied coat of arms" was created and carved. Stamped gingerbreads showing this motif were handed out among the wedding guests. Producing offspring was a main aim of marriage, therefore the bride could be presented with gingerbreads showing babies, tokens of well wishing and wishful thinking at the same time.
As far as the Christian calendar feasts were concerned, Christmas motifs took the lead. Among them, the Nativity and the Adoration of the Three Kings were most frequent, but other aspects, such as the feast day of Adam and Eve on 24 December, were represented also. The depiction, especially of these Christmas motifs, was often in the Baroque style because the designs reached their most elaborate forms during the 1600s. However, when such molds had to be replaced, the new carvings were often copies of the worn-out pieces, even including the dates of the originals. Thus a gingerbread mold made as late as the middle or even the second half of the nineteenth century can show all the stylistic criteria of two hundred years earlier.
In Catholic areas the range of religious motifs also included various saints and places of pilgrimage. The religious gingerbread reliefs were bought for the respective occasions. The big Christmas and Easter gingerbreads were shared by the family. The name day (saint's day) was more important than the birthday (the name day was interpreted as the day of the heavenly birth); consequently a gingerbread relief of the patron saint was often presented to a person as a present on his or her name day. Going on a pilgrimage was a common and regular event. A gingerbread depicting the miraculous image of the place of pilgrimage was carried home. (The custom survives, with paper replacing the gingerbread memento.)
A considerable number of gingerbread motifs were dedicated to news, and gingerbreads served as a kind of history book or newspaper. The "portraits" of emperors and kings or empresses and queens (for example, of Empress Maria Theresa of Austria-Hungary or of Emperor Charles the Great) were presented to the public in gingerbread images as well as in copperplate engravings. There were pictures of the giraffe the Egyptian ruler Mehemed Ali gave to the Austrian emperor in 1828 and of the first steamship on the Danube, the Maria Anna, as well as a portrayal of the 1817 European famine that was actually a sociocritical parody of the exorbitant prices of grain. These images represented the big news of the day.
The gingerbreads were sold in the workshops and on the markets. The producers went to the seasonal markets during the year but also set up their stalls on the place before the church on Sundays. The churchgoers were regular customers attending Mass and market together. Gingerbread reliefs were presented to children and grown-ups alike. For children they were sweets and toys (especially babies, riders, soldiers, swords, pistols, trumpets, animals, and at the beginning of the school year, alphabets and school scenes).
Gingerbread molds are no longer produced or in use commercially. Plain gingerbreads, that is, without reliefs, are common. Saint Nicholas, visiting the children on the evening of 5 December, always has gingerbreads among his gifts, and gingerbread hearts with written axioms ("With Love!" "For Friendship!") can be bought at fairs. Gingerbread molds have become collector's items and often are quite expensive since few have survived.
See also Baking; Bread; Cake and Pancake; Candy and Confections; Christianity; Christmas; Easter; Feasts, Festivals, and Fasts.
Germanisches Nationalmuseum Nürnberg. Festliches Backwerk [Festive cookies]. Edited by Klaus Pechstein and Ursulla Elwart. Nürnberg, Germany: Nationalmuseum, 1981.
Hipp, Hans. Lebzelten, Wachsstöcke, Votivgaben: Handwerk und Brauch [Gingerbreads, wax sticks, and religious votives: Craft and custom]. Pfaffenhofen, Germany: W. Ludwig, 1983.
Hörandner, Edith. Model: Geschnitzte Formen für Lebkuchen, Spekulatius und Springerle. [Molds: Carved forms for gingerbread, speculatius, and springerle]. Munich: Callwey, 1982.
Kruszelnicka, Janina. Pierniki Torunskie [Toruń gingerbreads]. Toruń, Poland: Ministertswo Kultury i Stucki, 1956.
Mai, Paul, ed. "Das Werk der Fleissigen Bienen ": Geformtes Wachs aus einer Alten Lebzelterei [The work of the busy bee: Molded wax from an old gingerbread shop]. Munich and Zurich, Switzerland: Schnell and Steiner, 1984.
Vienna Museum für Volkskunde. Lebzeltenmodel aus Österreich [Gingerbread molds from Austria]. Edited by Leopold Schmidt. Vienna: Österreichisches Museums für Volkskunde, 1972.
Weiner, Piroska. Carved Honeycake Moulds. Budapest, Hungary: Corvina Press, 1964.
gin·ger·bread / ˈjinjərˌbred/ • n. cake made with molasses and flavored with ginger. ∎ fancy decoration, esp. on a building: [as adj.] a high-gabled gingerbread house.
A. †preserved ginger XIII;
B. cake flavoured with ginger XV; adj. tawdry, gimcrack XVIII. Earliest forms gingebras, -brat, -bred — OF. gingembras, -brat — medL. gingibrātum, -ētum, f. gingiber GINGER + -ātum -ATE1. The final syll. assumed a form resembling or suggesting bread, and for sense B the insertion of r in the second syll. completed the semblance of a comp.
gingerbread man a flat ginger biscuit shaped like a person.