This Christmas, you might find yourself elbow-deep in frosting and candy canes, trying to construct a gingerbread house that doesn’t collapse. But it turns out that creating a gingerbread house isn’t just a Christmas construction project—it’s a ritual with sometimes surprising connections to royalty, brutal fairy tales, and global trade.
Although versions of gingerbread date to ancient Egypt and Greece, the gingerbread we eat today has its roots in the Middle Ages, when cakes became all the rage in Europe as an increasingly global world opened up to new spices and ingredients. First there was fruitcake. The once-hot, now played-out treat came into favor after medieval cooks finally got access to dried fruit from Spain and Portugal thanks to increased trade in the 13th century.
That led to a vogue in cakes and breads, which spread as better construction made having an oven in your house less terrifying. Trade with the East also made the ingredients in gingerbread available for the first time. Early gingerbread recipes contain spices that were once coveted and expensive, like cinnamon, sandalwood, and saffron, which became increasingly accessible after the Crusades. Gingerbread became big business, and local variations began to arise. Lebkuchen, a gingerbread-like spiced treat, became popular in Germany, and guilds of gingerbread makers began to emerge in the 15th and 16th centuries.
As gingerbread makers got better at their craft, they began to press the…