Named for things that please me (“me gusta” in Spanish) and rhymes with balabusta (Yiddish for “good homemaker”).

Of Myths and Gingerbread Men

It’s easy to confuse gingerbread with “Christmas”.

After all, you have gingerbread men popping up in car commercials (exhorting us to lease a rather forgettable automobile brand) and architecturally in gorgeous gingerbread houses with candy cane joists.

But like most of what we associate with Christmas, gingerbread has absolutely no religious significance, a characteristic it shares with holly, decorated fir trees and wreaths. These are all accoutrements invented by creative Northern Europeans to brighten dark winter days, and especially to make the holiday as beautiful and festive as possible.

The dried, ground version is the main seasoning for gingerbread of all types, the cookie like shapes we love (both at the holidays and as ginger snaps) as well as the softer cake which is so aromatic, also known as “pain d’epices” in France.

Beyond its use in baking, ginger is one of the world’s most versatile seasonings.  Sliced, fresh ginger is a foundation for Indian and Chinese cuisines, which also utilize it dried. Pickled ginger is a must to accompany Japanese sushi. Its soft pink blush is a byproduct of the pickling process, not food coloring (although the darker variety you sometimes see has been made with red plum vinegar).

The sautéed spinach with fresh ginger at the Blue Lemon in Westport was a revelation on one recent evening. It was even voted one of the state’s best side dishes in Connecticut Magazine’s Best of Connecticut 2010.

Then there are ginger tea, ginger ale and stronger tasting ginger beer, not spicy at all, and supposedly yielding some health benefits. Not having any medicinal properties, but quite delicious, is the Dark and Stormy, a concoction of ginger beer, dark rum and a squeeze of lime.

Too dubious to purchase and sample, was the White Ginger Cosmo I spotted on a drink menu: “freshly muddled ginger shaken with Absolut Citron Vodka, Mandarin Napoleon and white cranberry juice.” If any readers have tried this, leave a comment!

Wishing everyone a Spicy Holiday Season!

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2 thoughts on “Of Myths and Gingerbread Men

  1. You are right again, gingerbread and Christmas have little in common. Before sugar became available bread sweetened with honey, often made with wheat and rye flour was made in northern Europe. The dough had to be aged ( or fermented) up to 3 months in dark cellars. Exotic spices such as cardamon, allspice, coriander were used in center Europe, in England ginger was also used. Often ground or whole almonds were added. Making gingerbread was connected with candle making and during my time there was still a special apprenticeship for gingerbread makers and candlemakers. The German name is Lebkuchen and it was popular year round. Large lebkuchen hearts were sold at street fairs and in amusement parks.

  2. I had the most wonderful, spicy ginger martini at the NoHo Star in NYC. Fresh grated ginger, vodka, and not much else.

    I also have a nice story about the curative properties of ginger. I was singing in the chorus of the Connecticut Grand Opera. During a performance of The Marriage of Figaro, our Countess suddenly started having terrible stomach problems. She thought she’d have to stop. Fortunately, fellow chorus member Mandy had a thermos of homemade ginger tea (sliced ginger steeped in hot water, honey added). She gave some to the Countess, who felt better within minutes and was able to finish the performance.

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