Gingerbread Through the Ages: A Journey From Bohemia to Your Local Starbucks

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Neil Patrick Harris and Khloe Kardashian recently gave the gift of gingerbread houses to friends, and kids around the country are posting missing posters for their construction paper gingerbread men.

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But before our crunchy friend made it to 2016's pop culture and Candyland, he was rumored to have been all over the world, with questionable origins in Eurasia. Now, it depends on if you're talking about the gingerbread or the gingerbread man. Ginger made its way into Eurasia through traders on the Silk Road.

The first verifiable English recipe is handwritten and translated from French, recorded in 1430, and resides in the The Harleian Library of London. Other accounts include the tale of Gregory the Armenian, an archbishop who created a cake of honey and spices, according to a 10th century manuscript from a monk in France, “in the fashion of his far away homeland in Armenia.”

During Medieval times, the sweet treat was known as “Gyngerbrede.” Take a look and see if you can recreate it: “take a quart of honey and 'sethe' it and skim it clean; take saffron, powder pepper and throw thereon; take grated bread and make it so stiff that it will be sliced; then take powder cinnamon and scatter thereon enough; then make it square, like as thou would slice it … And if thou would have it red, colour it with sandalwood enough.' It was known throughout France as “gingebras.”

It is no surprise that Hansel and Gretel, the children's fairytale of German origins, refers to an edible house. Germans have embraced their place in history, and often call their gingerbread houses “the Witch's House (Hexen haus)” in honor of the antagonist.

Rumor has it that Queen Elizabeth I served the first human-shaped gingerbread figures at her court, but according to British historian and Tudor expert John Guy, this is a myth. He told Paste, “There's no solid evidence known to me that gingerbread human figures were ever served at the court of Elizabeth I! Sweetmeats, sugarloaf, marzipan in the shape of buildings, model soldiers, battlefields, artillery, chessboards and so on, and candied fruits – all these and more abound and were served then, or else given as gifts. But no sign of gingerbread men or the like.” He thinks the tale is derived from a recipe book gift to the Queen from one of her lords, or as others say, her master chef.

The first solid account of the gingerbread man is actually in reference to men who sold gingerbread at the market during the 1600s. William Shakespeare referred to the treat in Love's Labours Lost, in which the comedic Costard REALLY wanted gingerbread. He says, “And I had but one penny in the world, thou shouldst have it to buy ginger-bread.”

According to a 2010 cookbook by Jennifer Lindner McGlinn, the making of gingerbread in Bohemia (now Germany-ish) became such an honor that only skilled bakers in collectives called guilds could make it. Guilds in Nuremburg and Prague were all the rage. They began to use wooden molds to shape the spiced bread into men and animals.

Fast forward two hundred years. By this point, George Washington's mom Mary had a well-known “ginger cake” recipe, served to the Marquis de Lafayette, and forgotten until the Daughters of the Revolution found it in someone's attic in 1922. Victorian maidens in England were baking gingerbread men on Halloween to eat, in hopes of finding a husband, according to the Oxford Companion of Sugar and Sweets.

The Gingerbread man was actually a boy when he started running in 1875. St. Nicholas Magazine published a series called “The Gingerbread Boy” in which a childless woman bakes a gingerbread man in the oven, who promptly runs away when he's fully cooked. A fox ends up eating the gingerbread man in an unfortunate end. Somehow, the gingerbread man species is revived to fight another day in Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky's famous ballet, The Nutcracker, when an army of gingerbread men attack The Mouse King. He survived to end up in Candy Land in 1945, and is recreated in kitchens across America today.

Nowadays, gingerbread men and their homes are a tradition that refuses to die, even after the last bite. Elton John was thoroughly pleased with Neil Patrick Harris' gift of a two-story icing laced gingerbread house, posting a thank you to everyone involved on his Instagram.


Wow!! This has to be the most beautiful gingerbread house I have ever seen. Thank-you Neil, David, Harper and Gideon!! Have a very Merry Christmas ?????????????????????? @NPH @burtka @dbelicious @davidfurnish #ShareTheLove

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A photo posted by Elton John (@eltonjohn) on

The London Police are still searching for the missing gingerbread man, posting an alert in hopes of finding him.

In American elementary schools, children set up traps in hopes of catching him.

Acolytes of Dave Chappelle's show introduced a philosophical conundrum:

In Norway, the world’s largest gingerbread man (1,435 lb 3 oz) was made by IKEA Furuset, made with wheat flour, sugar, vegetable oil, fat, water, syrup, cinnamon, ginger, and salt. There are hundreds of thousands of different recipes online to make our friend, many of which are a spin-off of this simple AllRecipes.com recipe.

1. Mix flour, ginger, cinnamon, baking soda, nutmeg and salt in large bowl. Set aside.
2. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Roll out dough to 1/4-inch thickness on lightly floured work surface.
3. Bake 8 to 10 minutes or until edges of cookies are set and just begin to brown.

But somehow, Starbucks manages to make gingerbread loaf with just 24 ingredients. Get in the spirit of the holidays, and try out a new gingerbread man recipe. Remember the giant buttons and clever bow-tie. After all, the part with the most icing is going to be the part you bite off first.