A Staff Report from the Straight Dope Science Advisory Board

What's the origin of the gingerbread man?

May 2, 2001

Dear Straight Dope:

I won't say I've exhausted myself trying to research this, but I can see how it could happen. I read a news article on politically correct "gingerbread persons" the other day, and the Reuters source mentioned Grantham, England as the point of origin for this confection, dating that from 1740. No Internet site exists for that town (other than their local football club). Britannica was unhelpful on either a search for Grantham or for gingerbread, or for gingerbread man. Since Nabisco wasn't around back then, I'm guessing this origin of the cookie story does not relate to a specific industry, but I was curious to know what event or person inspired the gingerbread man. Help!

Sorry, pal, but in all the books of food history and cookie-making that I looked at--and I looked at quite a few--there was no mention of Grantham, nor of 1740.

So let's report what I did find. The root ginger was known in ancient China and India about 7,000 years ago. The name itself, zingiber, means horn-shaped in Sanskrit, based on the shape of the rhizomes (rootstalks). Ginger was an important item in the spice trade, and was used by the Greeks and Romans--mostly as a medicine, not for baking. Ginger was brought to Europe by the Crusaders returning home and quickly became popular. From Europe, ginger was brought to the New World, where the best ginger is now grown in Jamaica and Haiti.

Ginger was used in England in Anglo-Saxon days. By the late medieval period, ginger was almost as popular as pepper, and was still considered to have therapeutic or medicinal value. Geoffrey Chaucer writes in 1386, "they sette him roial spicery and gyngebreed" and we have recipes for gingerbread from the 14th century.

So, sorry to disagree with Reuters, but a date in the 1700s is just way too late. And my research found no reference to Grantham in this connection. The only thing I could find about Grantham (even in historical guide books of the U.K.) is that both Sir Isaac Newton and Margaret Thatcher were born there.

The earliest form of gingerbread was not a cake, but a solid block of honey baked with flour, ginger, breadcrumbs and spices. They were extravagantly and elaborately decorated in medieval England and were a popular present, the way that a box of chocolates is today. The decoration could include being colored with saffron or cinnamon, or having designs impressed on the gingerbread by large wooden molds--including the shape of men or pigs. The fleur de lis was a popular shape, as was a heart (to ward off evil), a stag (for virility) or a rabbit (for, ah, fertility.)

Or decorated with box leaves nailed down with gilded cloves. Gilded, did I say? Yes, indeed. The cloves would be touched with gold paint on their heads, and then used like nails, in a fleur-de-lis pattern. Or the gingerbread itself would be gilded--first painted with egg white, then gold leaf pressed on. Gilding gingerbread continued into the late 19th century, although my wife reminds me that Mary Poppins (1934) took Jane and Michael into Mrs. Corry's shop, where they found "rows and rows of dark, dry gingerbread, each slab so studded with gilt stars that the shop itself seemed to be faintly lit by them."

Shapes were very elaborate, from gingerbread castles to biblical scenes.

In the 16th and 17th centuries, gingerbread became lighter, with flour replacing breadcrumbs in the recipes. As early as 1573, treacle (molasses) was used instead of honey, and by the mid 1600s it had replaced honey altogether. Butter and eggs became popular additions to enrich the mixture. The expression "cake and gingerbread" in 16th century England was used to mean "pleasant."  

In the late 16th century, at the court of Queen Elizabeth I, honoured guests at court were sometimes presented with their portrait in gingerbread.

Around the same time, molasses from the New World replaced treacle in many recipes. Specialty gingerbreads were made in towns such as Ashbourne with its white gingerbread, or Ormskirk with dark; and Grasmere gingerbread from the Lake District has a shortbread texture (as do some Scottish gingerbreads.)

Bottom line: the invention of gingerbread and gingerbread-persons seems pretty clearly to predate the news item you cited. That said, I wasn't able to track down the Grantham story, which Reuters surely didn't make up out of whole cloth. Perhaps some knowledgeable reader will come to my rescue.

Today, it should be noted, imagination runs wild when it comes to gingerbread. At Christmas time especially, there are competitions for the creation of the most outlandish gingerbread houses, castles, manger scenes, and so forth. The Scandinavians favor ginger pigs.

As an aside, ginger is also used for making a drink called khing sot in Thailand, for brewing tea in Kashmir, and ginger oil is used to flavor ginger beer and ginger ale.

A few top notch sources--I delved in dozens of books on food history:

Oxford Food Companion, by Alan Davidson

Food of the Western World, by Theodora Fitzgibbon

Gingerbread, by Theresa Layman and Barbara Morgenroth

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