November 10, 2020

Gingerbread Memories, By Kelly Jarvis



Editor’s note: This sweet essay on gingerbread and the sweet memories it creates made it a perfect fit for EC. I know you’ll enjoy this great read.

When I was a little girl, a gingerbread house arrived in the mail each year just after Thanksgiving, sent by two great aunts from my father’s faraway side of the family. My parents would set the gingerbread house down in the middle of the table after Sunday dinner, and we would take turns breaking off pieces of the roof and window panes, strategically releasing the most coveted bits of candy. It always seemed a solemn activity, the slow deconstruction of the beautiful gift sent by the mysterious spinster aunts we had never met, but we nibbled away at the house like little mice, feasting upon gumdrop bushes and toffee shingles until all of our late November memories were sweetened by a sugary glaze of royal icing. 


Gingerbread houses sweeten our cultural memories as well, and the most famous gingerbread house arrives on our literary doorstep wrapped in a German fairy tale. This semester, I set the story of Hansel and Gretel down in the center of my classroom and watched as my college students consumed it, breaking off quotations to use as evidence in their papers about famine, tricksters, and collaborative siblings. Although the fairy tale is defined by the Aarne-Thompson-Uther index as a story about abandoned children who encounter a malevolent creature in the woods, it is the gingerbread house which acts as a visual shorthand for the tale, and it is the gingerbread house which held my students’ imaginations captive.  


Having remembered elaborate illustrations of the house from their own childhood encounters with Hansel and Gretel, my students were surprised to learn that the Brothers Grimm describe only a house “made of bread” with a roof “made of cake and the windows of sparkling sugar”. Each artist who has illustrated the tale since the Grimm publication has added delicious detail to the architecture of the house, and generations of readers have eagerly gobbled up the candy-coated pictures.




Some histories of gingerbread explore the odd intersection of witch houses and the Christmas season by investigating the Scandinavian tradition of baking gingerbread houses to celebrate St. Lucy’s Day, a Christian holiday with connections to pagan solstice celebrations when trolls and witches roamed wild. Still other histories trace the movement of gingerbread to America where a softer version of the delicacy was popularized by George Washington’s mother, Mary Bell Washington.  


Long before it was baked into bread, ginger was used to season food and drinks. It is known to heal an upset stomach, stop nightmares, and inspire passion. Gingerbread has been given as love tokens, shaped into seasonal symbols, sold outside of churches, and worn as talismans for protection against evil spirits. The versatile dough can be molded into cabins or castles, and its magic spice is said to warm the heart and soul of the people who eat it. Gingerbread is both food and art, giving us the sustenance we need to survive and the creative spark we need to make our lives worth living. 


Fairy tale gingerbread can build more than houses, as we learn from the magical folk tale “The Gingerbread Man.” In the most popular version of the story, first printed in the 1875 issue of St. Nicholas Magazine, an old woman who longs for a child bakes one out of gingerbread only to have him run away from everyone who tries to catch him. When my son read the story in kindergarten, his teacher donned a gingerbread man suit and led the children on a wild chase through the hallways of the school. Kindergarten students are not the only ones to have such fun with their food. The creation of gingerbread men dates all the way back to the English court of Queen Elizabeth I who had her royal bakers transform dough into the likeness of foreign dignitaries to entertain her guests, as explained in this history of the confection in Time magazine. 


One cold November day after my son had read the story of “The Gingerbread Man,” we watched a television show featuring professional bakers competing in a gingerbread house contest, a tradition still popular today. We were in awe as they baked life-sized sheets of gingerbread, decorating their houses with sugar spun so fine it glistened like stained glass. Inspired by the show, we decided to do some baking of our own. We poured over pictures like the ones found here. We dug out my grandmother’s recipe for gingerbread men and shaped the dough into stars of various sizes, stacking them up to form simple gingerbread trees. We whipped up batches of white frosting, swirling it into drifts of edible snow.  


Sadly, our dough was too thick, our icing was too thin, and it wasn’t long before my three young sons were chasing each other around the kitchen, leaving molasses fingerprints on the cabinets and trailing clouds of powdered sugar behind them. Still, my memories of that precious Christmas season are permeated by the glorious scent of my grandmother’s gingerbread which lingered in the air long after our tiny cake creations had collapsed. My sons tower over me now, ready to run like gingerbread men as fast as they can into adolescence and adulthood, but when I close my eyes in the November twilight and inhale the spicy smell of ginger mixed with cinnamon, I can still feel the sticky warmth of their little boy kisses brushing against my cheek. 


Late November is a time of darkness, a time of thankfulness, a time for gingerbread houses. Gingerbread houses are a lot like families; they are painstakingly built, glued together with the sweet icing of childhood memories, and they are meant to withstand gentle deconstruction, for it is only in the splintering that the most coveted bits of candy are revealed. When my sons grow up and venture out into the forest, I hope that they will stuff their pockets with sugary chunks of memory broken off from the home we have built together. I hope each gumdrop bite will bring them happiness and sweeten their lives with treasured recollections of time gone by. And most of all, I hope that beneath each frosted candy memory that bursts upon their tongues, my boys will taste the magic spice of love which transforms their sturdy slabs of gingerbread into talismans of protection that they can carry with them to warm their hearts and souls.


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Bio: Kelly Jarvis teaches classes in literature, writing, and fairy tale at Central Connecticut State University, The University of Connecticut, and Tunxis Community College. She lives, happily ever after, with her husband and three sons in a house filled with fairy tale books.


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Images, in order, by Charles Folkard and Otto Kugel.


26 comments:

Shelly said...

So descriptive! So beautiful! I love the ending- talismans of protection that they can carry with them to warm their hearts!

Katew said...

Kelly excels at details!

Kelly Jarvis said...

Thank you, Shelly and Kate! <3

Anonymous said...

This is awesome! Good job

Amy said...

Seriously dough, Kelly is serving up a batch of cool gingerbread tales. This story is baking waves and is a legend in the baking. A brilliant and fascinating story well served.

Stanley Parker said...

A wonderful story, Kelly. I loved your comparison between picking apart a gingerbread house as a child and your students picking apart the story of Hansel and Gretel.

Randy said...

This story rekindled memories of my childhood that haven’t crossed my mind in years. It reminded me of cookie decorating at my Grandmother’s house. We would decorate sugar cookies and gingerbread with white frosting, candy and silver decorations. The scent of freshly baked cookies would fill the kitchen and we couldn’t wait for them to cool so we could decorate them...and eat them!

Kelly Jarvis said...

Thank you, Stanley! It is always so interesting to watch what my students do with stories! Thanks for reading, Amy!

AMOffenwanger said...

Excellent article! Well written and so interesting. It goes very well with mine on the same topic from Dec. 2018 (which includes a recipe): https://www.fairytalemagazine.com/2018/12/fairy-tale-food-gingerbread-house-by-am.html?m=1.
One note: as I mention in my article, German gingerbread doesn't actually have any ginger in it - just lots of other "exotic" (i.e. expensive) spices. The Gingerbread Man, however, is, I believe, an English tale, so he might well have been gingered up.

Molly said...

This warmed me through to my bones and I could almost taste the icing sugar on the tip of my tongue... Beautiful.

Kelly Jarvis said...

Thank you so much for reading, Randy and Molly! <3 And thank you for posting the link to your gingerbread essay, AMOffenwanger!I loved reading your article and the recipe you provide which would work much better for building houses than my grandmother's recipe which was really designed for cookies. Interestingly, my grandmother's recipe calls for no ginger (a fact I always found confusing when I was a little girl), though her gingersnap recipe does include the spice! Thank you so much for adding your insight; I love reading your work on EC!

Mike Neis said...

Well-written article. It reminded me of how my daughters make "gingerbread" houses every Christmas with friends. It also made me think of a time I lived in the tropics. Ginger was growing in farms not far from me and I used it for cooking straight from the source. I discovered that ginger is really strong!

Stephanie said...

Aaahhhh! Just the perfect sweet that my imagination sorely needed today! I savored every word, and made connections with my own gingerbread house childhood, and adulthood, memories! Thank you, Kelly!

AMOffenwanger said...

Yes, gingerbread cookies would be different (as is other kind of German Lebkuchen - some are more cake than cookies in consistency, soft and chewy). And for the icing, to make a house stick together, it needs to be really thick.

Kelly Jarvis said...

Thank you so much for reading, Mike! Once in school we made “gingerbread” houses out of graham crackers! I have never used fresh ginger, but I bet it makes a difference when you are cooking!

Kelly Jarvis said...

Thank you so much, Stephanie! ❤️

Sharon W said...

Lovely story. I love the visual of slowly picking apart the gingerbread house-my own kids do that as well!

Kelly Jarvis said...

Thank you so much for reading, Sharon! ❤️

E.A. Lawrence said...

Thank you, Kelly Jarvis, for this enchanting article. I particularly enjoyed the metaphor between family and a gingerbread house. Given how divisive the world is right now, that kind of happy thought about family is very needed. Your class also sounds amazing and I now feel inspired to attempt gingerbread construction.

Kelly Jarvis said...

Thank you so much, E.A. Lawrence! ❤️ I hope you do try your hand at gingerbread construction! My boys have promised to try it again this year (since we are stuck at home for the winter).

Anonymous said...

Though I had intended to write something elaborate, I have nothing more to say about this article other than "it is perfect." Anything else would reduce it. Great job and well-written:)

Maxine said...

Such a sweet essay, excuse the pun. I enjoyed reading it. I love ginger cake and ginger bread but I have never had a ginger bread house. Reading about yours was like being there.

HulderMN said...

Every year Norway House in Mpls, MN holds a gingerbread house competition for all age levels. Some humorous, all beautiful, from amateur to professional level work. Last year featured neighborhood and MN scenes--we felt a need for unity. Gingerbread seemed a great way to bring folks together.

Kelly Jarvis said...

Thank you! That is so sweet! ❤️

Kelly Jarvis said...

Thank you, Maxine! I hope you get to have a gingerbread house soon! ❤️

Kelly Jarvis said...

Some of the displays that people make out of gingerbread are amazing! The one last year in MN sounds very cool! ❤️

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