Story and Photos by Nancy Covert
Nibble, nibble, like a mouse. Who’s that nibbling at my house? asked the ancient woman who’d created an irresistible gingerbread shelter- decorated with chocolates, candy canes and other temptations for little boys and girls who made their way to her doorstep.
On Dec. 15 more than a dozen pint-sized Hansel’s and Gretel’s crowded around the work table at Steilacoom Library to design their own gingerbread shelters.
The event, sponsored by the Pierce County area Friends of the Library, attracted more than more than 120 youngsters at eight county libraries around the Sound, including Steilacoom and DuPont.
Construction materials included: fruit loops, candy canes, gum drops, lollipops, and red licorice strips.
Best part of all, as demonstrated by the some-day contractors, was sampling the icing.
Volumes about the origins of gingerbread abound. An early form of gingerbread can be traced to ancient Greeks and Egyptians who used it for ceremonial purposes. Gingerbread made an appearance in Europe when 11th-century crusaders brought the spice back from the Middle East for rich folks’ cooks to experiment with.
As ginger and other spices became more affordable to the masses, gingerbread caught on. An early European recipe consisted of ground almonds, stale breadcrumbs, rosewater, sugar and, naturally, ginger. The resultant paste was pressed into wooden molds. These carved works of art served as a sort of storyboard, bearing the likeness of new kings, emperors and queens, or religious symbols. Telling the news of the day. The finished cookie might be decorated with edible gold paint (for those who could afford it) or flat white icing to bring out the details in relief.
By the 16th century, the English replaced the breadcrumbs with flour, and added eggs and sweeteners, resulting in a lighter product. The first gingerbread man is credited to Queen Elizabeth I, who impressed visiting dignitaries by presenting each of them with one baked in their own likeness.
Gingerbread tied with ribbon was popular at fairs and, when exchanged, became a token of love. On a more practical note, before refrigeration was a twinkle in someone’s eye, aromatic crumbled gingerbread was added to recipes to mask the odor of decaying meat.
A Gingerbread house was featured in Humperdinck’s opera, Hansel and Gretel, based on a German fairy tale.