Gingerbread In The House

A tasty Christmas-time treat, gingerbread is surprisingly versatile, with deep roots in storytelling—and (of course!) a deep footprint in pop culture.

Hey all, Ernie here with a piece from David Buck, who is (of course!) taking the Christmas issue this year. This time, he’s giving us a whole lot of gingerbread.

Today in Tedium: I once wrote a short story for a high-school creative writing class. The assignment was to put a contemporary spin on a folk tale, so I wrote Hansel & Gretel’s Excellent Adventure. It featured the titular heroes traveling around in a gingerbread time machine, helping other fairy tale characters survive their own stories. It was sort of Quantum Leap meets Grimm’s Fairy Tales. While that story only lives on as a fading memory, it did reinforce how much I love gingerbread. Cookies and sweets are probably my favorite part of the holidays. Russian tea cakes, almond crescents, and those fancy butter cookies that come in decorated tins are all family favorites. But all of them are nothing compared to the most delicate Christmas confection of them all: any sweets made from gingerbread. Although its origins are decidedly unrelated to the holiday, gingerbread men, houses, and other sweets are a big part of today’s yuletide celebrations. Stand aside, peppermint and chestnut. Today's Tedium is all about the convergence of gingerbread and modern Christmas/pop culture, with a splash of coffee on the side. — David @ Teidium

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1812

The year the Brothers Grimm version of Hansel & Gretel appeared. The well-known tale of the two children who outwit a witch (who lives in a candy or gingerbread house) is similar to other European folk tales and stories. Many such adventures are preoccupied with food and usually find their child protagonists endangered somehow. Grimms' Hansel & Gretel story went through several changes between its first publication in 1812 and its final 1857 version. Still, it helped launch the popularity of a standing holiday tradition: building gingerbread houses.

Gingerbread

(photo by author)

Gingerbread men and gingerbread architecture go together like milk and cookies

Before the Brothers Grimm helped popularize the idea of gingerbread houses worldwide, something similar had been an established custom in Germany since at least the 16th century. Before that, medieval fairs featuring gingerbread in some capacity (buttons, flowers, decorated cookies) were fairly common. Building tiny houses, on the other hand, wasn't gingerbread's primary use. One idea from the period postulates that some residents of one German village built gingerbread versions of their homes, and the kids would tear them apart when the new year arrived. Germans did make lebkuchenhaeusle—gingerbread houses—in the 1800s and brought the tradition with them when they emigrated to America, where the idea became popular.

However, most historical takes say it was after the publication of their version of Hansel & Gretel that gingerbread houses took off. German bakers started to make festive, ornamented gingerbread houses; eventually, it became intrinsically linked to the holiday, with plenty of books and kits on the subject to go around. Over time gingerbread houses branched out a bit. Today, it's easy to find gingerbread kits to make RVs and football stadiums, among other things. One can't forget the icing, gumdrops, and other candy decorations.

The Christmas connection comes from a variety of factors. Most holiday celebrations centered around food and feasts (they still are to some degree). The spices many of us take for granted today were new to Europe after the Crusades. Per The Smithsonian, Europeans associated all these new and fresh spices with the Holy Lands. Their familiarity with the Bible passage describing Three Magi giving frankincense and myrrh to baby Jesus only served to reinforce this belief. Combine these with the traditional yuletide feasts, and it's easy to see why gingerbread became a holiday food in the first place.

The gingerbread man cookie itself may have originated in medieval times with Queen Elizabeth I. In a 2016 Time magazine article, director of the medieval studies program at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln Carole Levin, wrote the queen "did a banquet where she had gingerbread men made to represent foreign dignitaries and people in her court."

Another theory asserts gingerbread men came from the Netherlands, where gingerbread visages of the biblical figures of Abraham and Sarah were provided to new couples to wish them success in conceiving children. But that's not the most exciting use of the cookies during the period. Per Levin, folk-medicine practitioners gave cookies shaped like the men to young women. The woman ate the cookie, hoping the object of desire fell in love with them—a delicious but not entirely fool-proof method.

ten

The length, in micrometers, of the world's smallest gingerbread house. For scale, it's about one-tenth the diameter of an average human hair. Created by research associate Travis Casagrande at Canada's McMaster University in 2019, the house was smaller than a 20- micrometer house cut by France's Femto-ST Institute the previous year. It's also not exactly a gingerbread house. Although designed to resemble the cookie architecture style—including sharply defined bricks and a Canadian flag for a welcome mat—the house itself was cut from silicon using a focused ion beam microscope. The largest gingerbread house—made of actual gingerbread this time—was constructed in Texas back in 2013.

Gingerbread Man Illustration

Gingerbread men are not the only kinds of backed goods that run away. (Internet Archive Book Images/Flickr)

How stories about runaway foods pre-heated the oven for the gingerbread man

Runaway food stories are quite common in the collective history of stories. It’s typically a pancake, cornmeal cake, or a ball of bread. The stories always follow a similar structure: the food gets away, makes a series of daring escapes from creatures attempting to consume it, but ultimately either sacrifices itself or gets eaten by the end. There is even a classification system for folktales, called the ATU (Aarne-Thompson-Uther) Index. Flying Pancake stories are classified under ATU 2025, as they are a category unto themselves. Often of Russian or Scandinavian origin, these tales always impart a moral or a lesson to the reader or listener. In the case of the gingerbread man, the lesson is sort of dark for a children's story: be careful who you trust.

Flying Pancake tales were still a popular form of storytelling even into the 1940s. Hugh Brannum—Mr. Green Jeans himself—released several stories recorded with Fred Waring’s orchestra about the adventures of a little kid named Orley. Told under Brannum’s pseudonym of Uncle Lumpy, these 78 RPM records typically focused on Orley getting himself into some kind of trouble, with humorous results. The stories usually resolve neatly and with some sort of moral at the end. One Little Orley story told a version of the flying pancake tale, with a near-perfect recreation of the gingerbread man story arc.

Little Orley Pancake

In case you’re in the mood for some runaway pancake music, here you go.

In 1947’s Little Orley & the Pancake. In the song, the pancake escapes from his mother and proceeds to taunt Orley and everyone else with whom he comes into contact. That is until he comes to the river, and a pig eats him under the pretense of helping him cross. Dr. Demento plays the song every so often on his show, and thanks to our friends at the Internet Archive, anyone can hear this fun juxtaposition of folk tales and Americana anytime. If nothing else, the story’s structure, characterization, and moral parallel the original gingerbread man story we know today.

The version of the gingerbread man tale with which most of us are familiar came in the form of “The Gingerbread Boy” in an 1875 edition of St. Nicholas Magazine. But it wasn’t the original version of the story.

The author told the publication about the origins of the tale: “‘The Gingerbread Boy’ is not strictly original. A servant girl from Maine told it to my children. It interested them so much that I thought it worth preserving. I asked where she found it, and she said an old lady told it to her in her childhood.”

The tradition of passing down stories is nothing new, and the gingerbread man’s story is no exception. Iterations of the character made their way into L. Frank Baum stories, a notable role in the Shrek films, and even shovelware on the Nintendo Wii. Hey, they can't all be winners.

Parts of the story have changed over the years—including introducing the famous "run, run, as fast as I can" line at some point in the past century—and will probably continue to do so for a long time to come.

651

The weight (in kilograms) of the world's largest gingerbread man, as certified by Guinness World Records in 2009. Baked by Oslo, Norway-based IKEA Furuset (yes, that IKEA), it beat the previous world record set by Smithville, TX three years earlier. They baked the cookie from the ordinary ingredients—wheat flour, sugar, fat, water, syrup, cinnamon, ginger, and salt—and entirely edible. The world's tallest man even unveiled the cookie at the time.

Five songs that feature or mention gingerbread in some way

The holidays bring along veritable songbooks full of joy, weather discussions, and Christmas imagery. But sometimes, things get a little bit more specific. For instance, Nat King Cole sang “The Christmas Song” to the world in 1945. In 1961, Joey Dee & the Starliters brought us “The Peppermint Twist.” Chestnuts and peppermint—both Christmas-time staples—are the subject of a few songs. But what about gingerbread? Sadly, there aren’t many songs on the matter outside of children’s music, but that doesn't mean the subject isn't any less ingrained in pop culture. That doesn’t mean they don’t exist. Here are a few times the muse brought the world songs with a gingerbread theme. Oh, and only one of them is a children’s song. Here goes:

5. “The Gingerbread Man,” Jack Hartmann

Jack Hartmann was a social worker before becoming a children’s entertainer. While his work engages young audiences around the world, his style incorporates solid musicianship with family-friendly stories. “The Gingerbread Man” retells the story of the folktale, with extra attention to detail. The characters receive new personalities—the fox, in particular, is a bit of a surfer dude—and a cartoon accompanies the story. The music is where the song gets interesting. It’s a predominantly spoken-word piece set over a rock & roll beat. There’s some nice palm-muting in the verses, with a rockabilly vibe in the chorus, the music kind of rocks. There’s even a little jazz flourish at the end. It probably wouldn’t end up on anyone’s holiday top ten lists. Still, it’s a fun way for a family—especially those with younger children—to enjoy the Gingerbread man story in a contemporary way. Don’t worry; things get weirder from here.

4. “Come and Buy My Toys,” David Bowie

Sparse bass fills in the breezy atmosphere of this acoustic guitar-driven piece. Hailing from Bowie’s 1967 self-titled album (not to be confused with the later release containing “Space Oddity”), the song is a bittersweet, almost melancholy story about the commercialization of Christmas. The singer is beseeching, practically begging, passer-by to come and buy his wares. Where does gingerbread enter the picture? It’s one of the titular toys. It comes up during the chorus when the shop owner states he sells “monkeys made of gingerbread.”

It showcases Bowie’s songwriting skills early in his career, with an understated but ultimately heavy air of sadness in the song.

3. “Gingerbread Coffin,” Rasputina

Rasputina is a phenomenal group that features electric cellos and unique subject matter. Nirvana fans may recall founding member Melora Creager's stint playing cello with them on their 1994 European tour. Always in top form with both their writing and performances, this song is the lead-in track from their 2002 Cabin Fever album.

To say "Gingerbread Coffin" is a bit unsettling would be an understatement. It has a chilling vibe with haunting orchestration and sparse, poetic lyrics and absolutely nothing to do with Christmas.

2. “Gingerbread Girl,” Hugh Cornwell

In the tradition of low-key, slow-building electric rock comes Hugh Cornwell’s “Gingerbread Girl.” From his 2000 solo album Hi-Fi, the former Stranglers frontman brought his impressive instrumentation to the fore with a collection of introspective songs that included two different versions of this one in later releases. With pulsing percussion and reverb-soaked guitar punches, the song is more a tale of longing than anything else. There’s even a magnificent wah-wah pedal guitar solo later in the music. While there are a few baking metaphors and plenty of word-play involving gingerbread, it’s decidedly not a novelty song. It has a sweeping sadness, which seems to be a common theme among these “gingerbread” songs. Either way, it’s an excellent place to explore Cornwell’s post-Stranglers discography further, but your mileage may vary.

1. “The Gingerbread Man Instrumental,” The Residents

No Tedium list is complete without mentioning at least one outsider or avant-garde artist. The Residents sometimes fall into both categories. Their version of the story is told through a series of escalating sound collages, culminating with a 20-minute instrumental extravaganza that does a reasonably good job of capturing the tale’s essence in the art collective's inimitable manner. The album isn’t a series of individual songs, but per the Residents themselves, “a series of audio portraits done in a unifying style.” Each track on the album starts the same way and proceeds to tell the story of some individual who lives with a version of the Gingerbread Man within them. The 1994 album was an enhanced CD release that allowed players to use their keyboard as a visual instrument. As a bonus, Todd Rundgren was a special guest on several tracks, so if you’re a fan of either, it may be worth hearing the entire thing at least once.

Of course, if you genuinely want to freak someone out, skip right over the Residents and show them Pinkfong’s “Baby Shark vs. Gingerbread Man” (sorry, the link has been redacted for holiday safety reasons).

“The popularity of gingerbread during the holidays can, at least in part, be attributed to the belief that spices heated you up in the winter.”

Michael Krondl, author of Sweet Invention: A History of Dessert. Krondl's assertion offers at least one reason for gingerbread's popularity around Christmas time, but it probably has deeper roots than that. The spice was brought to Germany following the Crusades and often made into charms or shaped into various saints’ likeness. The rest is culinary history.

Plenty of the gingerbread traditions we celebrate and share today owe their origins to Germany, the Netherlands, France, and Britain but have evolved to become part of our collective experience worldwide. Not bad for a mix of ginger, honey, and molasses.

But whether it's food, folk tales, or silly horror films, it's clear gingerbread captures the public imagination in a way few foods ever can. It doesn't hurt that most gingerbread treats are delicious. Whatever future holidays may bring, it's comforting to know gingerbread will always make an appearance.

And while I'm still a bit disappointed that Starbucks discontinued the gingerbread latte, that won't stop me from having a safe and cookie-filled holiday this year. Have a happy and safe holiday, everyone, and may we all live in significantly less interesting times next year.

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Thanks again to David for the killer piece. May your gingerbread stay stationary this holiday season.

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