We’re like the wicked witch. We promise gingerbread, then eat the little brats alive.
~ Orson Scott Card
It didn’t take me long to realize that no handed-down family traditions existed in my family’s kitchen. None. It was as if everything foodwise emerged sui generis from Hydra’s head. And nowhere did that dearth of tradition appear more apparent than at Christmas time.
All my family’s so-called traditions began as if neither of my parents ever existed before their marriage.
Candy Cane Cookies from Betty Crocker, the aroma of peppermint lingering in my nose as well as my mouth with each bite.
Gingerbread Boys gleaned from the recipe box of the same people responsible for Daddy’s vegetable beef soup, the O’Neills.
The thing that always puzzled me about the O’Neills’ gingerbread recipe was, well, there was no ginger in it. Just cinnamon. And lots of shortening, so much so that eating a large number of those cookies resulted in a massive stomachache.
Gingerbread shaped in the form of humans or animals enjoyed a long history in medieval European culture. Some pundits believe the shapes took place of real sacrificial rituals rooted deep in the past, fuzzy with the passage of time and pagan beliefs. Gingerbread began with its hot-in-the-mouth buzz, combined with black pepper to create a warming winter treat, originally sweetened with honey and later sugar as the centuries rolled by.
Discovering the origin of gingerbread came much later for me, but the process of making those rolled-out cookies followed time-honored methods.
I remember Mom and Daddy sitting at the kitchen table, cutting out animal shapes from thin cardboard, usually a large turkey or rabbit shape depending on the holiday, its size fitted to the sturdy aluminum baking sheet that my grandparents gave them in 1948, after Mom and Daddy eloped to Yuma, Arizona. A traditional gingerbread-man cookie cutter took care of the task of cutting out the Gingerbread Boys. Finished off with dollops of gooey white frosting, these festive cookies often ended up in gift boxes for neighbors and friends, too.
And the Gingerbread Boys all looked as if they’d jumped out of that nursery rhyme about the runaway Gingerbread Man, also called The Gingerbread Boy. St. Nicholas Magazine first published “The Gingerbread Boy” story in its May 1875 issue as a cumulative tale. Similar in structure to “The Little Red Hen,” the story depends upon repeating scenes, but with an increasingly large number of unique characters.
Run, run as fast as you can!
You can’t catch me. I’m the Gingerbread Man!
“Why do you always bite the head off the Gingerbread Boy first?” I once asked my brother Jeff. “Because,” he answered between bites, “I can!”
Me, I licked the frosting off first.
2 cups vegetable shortening
1 cup granulated sugar
1 cup light brown sugar, packed
5 ¼ cups all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon baking soda
¼ teaspoon fine sea salt
Preheat oven to 350°F. Cream first four ingredients together. Sift dry ingredients into another mixing bowl, then stir into shortening mixture. Knead until well mixed. Roll 1/8 of an inch on a floured surface and cut into chosen shapes. Bake on ungreased baking sheets for 10 minutes or until lightly browned on the bottoms. Cool completely on racks and frost as desired.