Ginger can be traced back to Europe during the 11th Century when explorers came back from the Middle East with the spice ginger. In the middle ages, medieval ladies gave gingerbread cakes to their favorite knights. Different shapes were used for different meanings. The heart was used to ward off evil. Ginger was very plentiful in Germany because it became the center for spice trade. Craft people created special baking molds of animals, fish, and bible scenes sometimes weighing over one hundred pounds. In the 16th century Queen Elizabeth I presented guests with gingerbread made to look like them.
During the nineteenth century, gingerbread was modernized. It quickly became popular, especially in Germany. The Brothers Grimm, who wrote Hansel and Gretel, the tale was about two children who walked through the dangerous forest and they came upon a house made of gingerbread, made gingerbread houses even more popular. In some villages, each family would bring a model of their home to a central location where the village was recreated in miniature. Then, on New Year’s Day, the children break the houses apart and eat them to celebrate the New Year.
Gingerbread houses became popular in America after this time. Competitions still exist across the country to see who can build the most lavish Gingerbread house.
Since 1991, the people of Bergen, Norway have built a city of gingerbread houses each year before Christmas. Named Pepperkakebyen (Norwegian for “gingerbread city”), it is claimed to be the world’s largest such city. Every child under the age of 12 is permitted to make their own house with the help of their parents.
One of my favorite holiday activities growing up was decorating ginger bread houses. I remember doing this in school when I was younger, using milk cartons and graham crackers. Inevitably the walls of the house would fall down and/or crack but it was always fun to try to put as much candy on the house as possible. Later on, we progressed to more advanced houses that were made of actual gingerbread and were held together with royal icing that hardened, holding the walls in place. Abby and I would try to out-do each other by adding singles to the roof or brick walkways that lead up to the doors.
When I moved to New York, I was lucky enough to help my friend, Jessi Walter who had just started her kids cooking company, Taste Buds. Over the month of December, I probably helped her run about 10-12 gingerbread house parties around the city. I definitely honed my gingerbread making skills during these classes and learned many tricks of the trade (most important – assemble the houses ahead of time!)
This past weekend I was able to put that knowledge and expertise to use on Saturday when we took approximately eight Robin Hood families to one of our homeless shelters that focuses on helping families stay off the streets. After a quick intro about the facility and work that they do, the families were led on a tour that included a stop at a playground that Robin Hood built a few years back. The final stop was in the rec. room where we lead 30 children in gingerbread making.
It was an incredible experience for everyone involved. I am so grateful that I was able to help carry on this holiday tradition with so many deserving children.
p.s. Don’t you love that it is snowing on the Little Things? I do!