The Gingerbread House, a Christmas Tradition

There are few things more synonymous with Christmas than the gingerbread house. But did you know this tradition got its start from a famous fairytale?

First cultivated in China some 5,000 years ago, ginger root was thought to have been initially used for medicinal purposes. Later it was used to season and preserve breads. It was also used to mask the smell and taste of cured meats. From the Middle East, one legend has it that in 992 the Armenian monk and saint, Gregory of Nicopolis (Gregory Makar), brought gingerbread to the northern French of Pithiviers where for seven years he taught baking ginger flavored breadstuffs to other priests and Christian bakers.

Gingerbread as we know it today began appearing in Europe during the 15th century. This was especially true in France, England, and Germany. And by the late 1400s bakers had begun shaping gingerbread into all sorts of figurines such as hearts, stars, animals, and religious items which were sold in shops and markets. In fact, gingerbread figurines and trinkets were so popular that gingerbread fairs were organized for the express purpose of sampling the popular confections.

It is believed that in the 16th century Queen Elizabeth was the first to have gingerbread man cookies made in the likeness of visiting dignitaries to which she presented them as parting gifts.

In the early 19th century Germany, well decorated gingerbread houses became popular following the 1812 publication of the Brothers Grimm fairytale Hansel and Gretel. And while their popularity didn’t catch on in Britain, gingerbread houses were well received in the rest of Europe, a Christmas tradition that was brought to America by the Pennsylvanian German immigrants.

Today making gingerbread houses in America remains extremely popular, not only as a traditional holiday family activity but commercially, as well as rival stores, hotels, schools, and civic organizations compete to see who can construct the largest and most elaborate.

On November 30, 2013, the Traditions Club in the small town of Bryan, Texas set a new world’s record for the largest gingerbread house in order to raise funds for a new hospital trauma center. It took 7,200 pounds of flour, 2,925 pounds of brown sugar, 68 pounds of ground ginger, 1,800 pounds of butter, and 7,200 eggs to build the 2,520 square foot house.

In 2017, sous chef Jon Lovitch of the New York Marriott Marquis hotel set the world’s record for the largest gingerbread village for the fourth year. The editable town had 135 houses and 22 commercial buildings, complete with gingerbread people, cars, and even a train.

Interested in making your own gingerbread house? Wilton, America’s largest baking products company, makes gingerbread house kits available at retail department, hobby and crafts stores nationwide. For those of you with a bit more skill in the baking arena, recipes and templates are available on a number of online web sites including my favorite shown below.

How You Make Em:

NOTE: Brothers Grimm were actually two brothers; Wilhelm and Jacob Grimm. The were German academics, philologists, cultural researchers, and authors who together collected and published folklore. They popularized traditional oral tales such as Cinderella, Hansel and Gretel, Sleeping Beauty, and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, to name just a few of their more than 200 stories.


Fruitcake: Holiday Tradition or Joke?

“The worst Christmas gift is fruitcake,” cracked Johnny Carson on the Tonight Show. “There is only one fruitcake in the entire world, and people keep sending it to each other, year after year.”

FruitcakeWe all hear the infamous fruitcake jokes year after year: “Why does fruitcake make the perfect gift? Because the U.S. Postal Service hasn’t found a way to damage it.” And, “If you don’t like it, use it as a doorstop.” But the epitome of all fruitcake jokes has to be the Great Fruitcake Toss held each year in Manitou Springs, Colorado, where people pitch them, launch them, toss them – everything but eat them. And if you don’t have your own fruitcake they’ll rent you one for a dollar.

People either love fruitcake or they hate it.

Fruitcake dates back beyond Roman times when the recipe included pomegranate seeds and pine nuts. Fruitcake was used to sustain Roman Legions during their long, arduous campaigns, as well as the Christian armies during the Crusades.
Why Christmas became synonymous with fruitcake seems to be unknown, but it is thought to have been started by English nobles who passed out a slice of plum cake to poor carolers in the late 1700s.

Europeans have been baking the dense, spirit-drenched cake for ceremonial celebrations such as religious holidays, weddings, christenings, and birthdays since the early 18th century. In England, it is still a custom that if unwed guests put a piece of wedding cake–usually a dark fruitcake–under their pillow, they will dream of the person they will marry. And of course, a Victorian tea would not be complete without a few slices of fruitcake.

101_DlxFrtck_Pkgg_Hldy_F03Fruitcake is thought to have made its appearance in America during the Revolutionary War. By the late 1800s, decorated tins became the packaging of choice for this hefty confection, and in the early 1900s, a Texas company founded the first fruitcake mail-order business.

Some of you may raise the question, “Does anyone really eat fruitcake?” According to a survey conducted by an independent research company, the answer to that question is less than one-third of the people surveyed admit to eating it, except in the South. It seems Southerners are a bit fonder of fruitcake – over forty percent say they not only eat it during the holidays, but actually enjoy it. Perhaps this is a result of the two most prominent bakers of this fruit and nut laden delicacy in America being located in rural Southern communities. Also the South’s abundance of pecans and walnuts is thought to be the reason why modern fruitcake recipes contain such a plethora of nuts (“nutty as a fruitcake” was coined in 1935).

In spite of this evidence, it’s apparent that people everywhere do eat fruitcake. After all, annual fruitcake sales in this country exceed $100 million. That’s equal to more than 20 million cakes. Even the Great Fruitcake Toss can’t dispose of that many cakes.

fruitcake2So for those of you who truly enjoy this traditional Christmas treat, we hope you’ll try our recipe for a delicious Old-South Fruitcake that is dark and moist. In it the candied fruits have been eliminated in favor of dried fruits, as we believe they are more palate pleasing.

And for those of you who hate fruitcake, sit back, have a double shot of eggnog, and hope Aunt Millie doesn’t give you another doorstop this year.

Buy Em: Collin Street Bakery, Corsicana and Waco, Texas; Eilenberger Bakery, Palestine, Texas; Claxton Bakery, Claxton, Georgia; Assumption Abbey Bakery, Ava, Missouri

Make Em: Chef Monte’s Old-South Fruitcake