by Laurel Murphy
"And I had one penny in the world, thou should'st have it to buy gingerbread." ~ William Shakespeare, Love's Labours Lost
My mother did not have a sweet tooth; desserts were rare. Her idea of dessert was Jell-O with canned fruit cocktail. “That’s not dessert, that’s a salad,” we would wail. When she got tired of our sniveling, she would make my favorite: gingerbread (from a box) with lemon sauce (from scratch). Spicy, moist cake with tart-sweet sauce; life was good. Historically, gingerbread has always been special.
It's not Bread
In 2000BC, wealthy Greeks were eating spiced honey cakes from Rhodes. Europeans produced similar cakes when 11th century crusaders brought back ginger and other spices from the Middle East. By the 15th century, English cakes made with breadcrumbs, sugar and spices were called “gingerbras,” the French word for preserved ginger. Over time, “bras” became “bread.”
In 17th century Germany and France, only bakers’ guilds were allowed to bake gingerbread, except during Christmas and Easter. The best-known guild, the Lebkuchner, was located in Nuremberg, Germany. The quality of the lebkuchen gingerbread was so high that it was used as currency.
Why the Houses
Gingerbread was often baked in elaborate molds. Cut into shapes, decorated and tied with ribbon, it was so popular during the Middle Ages that many festivals were known as “gingerbread fairs.” Queen Elizabeth I introduced the first gingerbread men when she presented dignitaries with their gingerbread likeness.
After the publication of the Grimm Brothers’ tale of Hansel and Gretel, German bakers offered elaborate gingerbread houses. These houses became popular during Christmas and German immigrants brought the tradition to the United States.
Now It’s Everywhere
In America, gingerbread usually means two types of cookies–Middle European honey-based cookies or English molasses shortbreads. The cookies can range from thin and crisp to puffy and soft. They can be plain or elaborately shaped and decorated. Gingerbread can also be the spicy cake I loved as a child.
There is no standard gingerbread spice mix. In Germany, one traditional mixture uses nine spices. We use a “gingerbread spice mix” in other products such as coffee drinks, cocoa, candy, tea, ale, ice cream, energy bars, soap, candles, etc to invoke a Holiday taste and smell.
We have many gingerbread products available in our community (see short list, below). Buy some and repeat after me, “Life is good.”
Gingerbread products in Downtown Longview
Cookies, Cakes, Cupcakes
Red Rooster Bakery (1328 Commerce)
Kristi’s Custom Cakes (1339 Commerce, Suite 103)
The Merk Deli (1339 Commerce, Suite 111)
The Gift Cottage (1414 Commerce)
Coffee Drinks, Coffee
Scoops (1339 Commerce, Suite 103)
Fusion (1333 Broadway)
The Gift Cottage (1414 Commerce)
The Gift Cottage (1414 Commerce); Jan’s Ceramics (1223 Commerce); Red Hat Holiday Store (1240 Commerce)
Do you have a favorite gingerbread product? Besides the list above, have you found gingerbread products anywhere else around the Lower Columbia region? Please let us know of your "favorite finds" in a comment below.
Laurel Murphy is an advocate for Downtown Longview and the arts. She was instrumental in creating Longview Outdoor Gallery, the 11 sculptures recently installed on Commerce.