You’d be hard-pressed to find a holiday spread in the United States or Europe today that doesn’t feature some variation of gingerbread. Be it a soft brown cake or stiff little men with clothes piped in frosting, gingerbread can come in the form of a wide range of baked goods flavored with warming spices like cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, and of course ginger. While gingerbread has become a western Christmas tradition, its variations have actually been served all over the world at all times of year for centuries.
Archaeological evidence of the first iteration of gingerbread goes back to ancient Greece, Rome, and Egypt, according to the Oxford Companion to Sugar and Sweets. They were flat cakes made with spices and honey. In the cookbook Gingerbread, Jennifer Lindner McGlinn writes that since ginger was native to Indo-Malaysia, sweets perfumed with the spice were also commonly made by Chinese and Arab people. However, it wasn’t until spices native to eastern countries became increasingly available in northern Europe throughout the Middle Ages, that the flavors and textures we now commonly associate with gingerbread were born.
First produced in Christian cloisters and monasteries, these European spiced honey cakes were eventually made by professional bakers and in the home. Gingerbread's popularity grew, and variations on the sweet traveled throughout European cities and further on to North and South America, New Zealand, Australia, and parts of Africa. Some of these areas of the world even began growing the spice. According to McGlinn, the Portuguese cultivated “a unique variety of ginger in Africa” and by the 16th century, the Spanish were growing “what became high-quality Jamaican ginger in the West Indies.”
While early European gingerbread was similar to Chinese spice breads, as it was made more regularly people began to adapt the recipe into its more commonly known iterations. At first, rye flour and honey were seasoned with ginger, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, sometimes black pepper. As the recipes were adapted, ingredients like wheat flour, eggs, butter, golden syrup, maple syrup, dried fruit and nuts, among other flavorings and leaveners became common. Early gingerbread was made as a biscuit or cookie; and the first gingerbread men were served by Queen Elizabeth, who had the cookies made to resemble honored guests in her court.
In American Cake, Anne Byrn writes about how settlers brought gingerbread to New England. As cane sugar was expensive, molasses became the called for sweetener for American gingerbread. The sticky syrup made dark and moist cakes, and gingerbread continued to grow in popularity. Benjamin Franklin described buying large quantities of gingerbread to settle his stomach for ocean voyages, and by 1796, the first American cookbook, American Cookery, contained seven recipes for gingerbread cakes.
The gingerbread house tradition began in Germany in the 1800s, around the time of the circulation of the Brothers Grimm’s fairy tale “Hansel and Gretel.” While it’s unclear which surfaced first, the fairy tale or the gingerbread house, both fed the popularity of the other, and the houses are still made as a Christmas tradition all over Europe and the United States.
Today, American gingerbread cookies and cakes are distinguished from each other via packaging and recipe titles. Variations on the cakes and cookies still be found all over the world, from soft German Lebkuchen (which dates back to 1395) to sugar-glazed Romanian turtă dulce, to crumbly Dutch peperkoek.