Records of gingerbread and gingerbread making go as far back as the tenth century in Europe, though the form of the tasty treat varied from place to place. In 992, Gregory of Necropolis, an Armenian monk, brought gingerbread to Europe and taught the art of gingerbread-making to the French before he died. Some kinds of gingerbread seem to be more like cake, while other kinds are more like a hard biscuit. Whether it was light or dark, soft or crispy, sweet or spicy, the common ingredient for all versions of this delectable dish was ginger.
In Medieval England gingerbread meant simply "preserved ginger" and was an adaptation of the Old French gingebras, derived from the Latin name of the spice, Zingebar. It was only in the fifteenth century that the term came to be applied to a kind of cake made with treacle, an uncrystalized syrup drained from raw sugar during the refining process, and flavored with ginger.
One unique property of ginger which was eventually discovered was its ability to act as a preservative in baked goods, which made it an ideal food during these times when natural preservatives were virtually the only way to keep foods relatively fresh and edible after they were initially prepared,
As a consequence, items made with gingerbread were often served at Medieval and Renaissance fairs. Gingerbread was traditionally cut either into squares and dusted with powdered sugar or served with a lemon sauce or whipped cream. One of the traditions for single women at these fairs was to eat gingerbread men as an indication that they wanted to be married one day.
Gingerbread was also baked into various shapes, often determined by the seasons. In the spring and at Easter fairs, the gingerbread was often shaped either like buttons or flowers; in the fall and at harvest fairs, it was usually shaped like animals or birds.
The German tradition of baking gingerbread into flat shapes is the one that has become most prevalent in America, but even then different regions of the country still feature different types and styles of the tasty treat. In New England, for example, people use maple syrup in their gingerbread, while in the South they typically use molasses. Whatever the specifics, the country has been making gingerbread faithfully for several centuries.
Today one of the most popular forms of gingerbread in America is the gingerbread houses which have become a Christmas staple whether done on a small scale on the kitchen counter or a massive and ornate scale at the White House.