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Like other spices, ginger came from the Middle East, probably transported by a knight returning from the Crusades near the end of the eleventh century. When the Europeans discovered that ginger helped to preserve their breads, they began to use it in their baking; thus, "gingerbread" meant literally bread with ginger.
Gingerbread has always been a fairground delicacy; in fact, many fairs became known as "gingerbread fairs" and distinguished one season from the others by the shapes in which gingerbread was baked, such as buttons and flowers for Easter and animals and birds for Autumn. Of course, traditions were created with the baking of gingerbread; for instance, one English village had the unmarried women eat "gingerbread husbands" at the fair to increase their chances of finding a good husband, or residents honored their town's name by baking gingerbread figures of the patron saint, such as St. Bartholomew in England. Later, in the seventeen century gingerbread bakers were recognized as professionals and the only ones with the right to baking with the spice, except at Easter and Christmas.
More than any other European country, Germany has a long, firmly-held tradition of flat, shaped gingerbread. Every Autumn in Germany and areas influenced by Germanic culture, there are rows and rows of booths with the delicacies shaped as hearts with icing and red ribbons tied to them. Nuremberg merchants, in fact, were so well known for their spices that they had the nickname "pepper sacks." For, their Lebkuchen packed into one recipe all the complete variety of flavorings that bakers could use--cardamom, cloves, cinnamon, white pepper, anise and ginger.
The German custom of making Lebkuchen houses at Christmas remains to this day:
Elaborate Victorian houses, heavy with candies and sugar icicles, vie in competition with the Hansel and Gretel houses, more richly decorated and ornamented than most children could imagine in their wildest dreams.
These conjure the story of Hansel and Gretel, two children who discovered a gingerbread house in the forest.
When German immigrants came to America, they brought with them their traditions, so gingerbread houses became popular in the United States, especially in areas where they had settled; however, fewer spices are used than in the "old country." Still, along with other Northern European influences such as Scandinavian cookies like Pepparkaker there is nowhere in the world where there are more gingerbread recipes than in America.
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