The Decline and Fall of Gingerbread: Baking, Technology, and American Culture (in progress)
Two hundred years ago, gingerbread was the generic sweet treat of early America, children’s reward, traveler’s fare and laborer’s snack, the Clif Bar of the Jefferson administration. So powerfully flavored was it that teetotalers recommended it as a substitute for strong liquor. It graced the tables of the rich and filled the pockets of the poor.
Then, over the course of the nineteenth century, gingerbread was reinvented not once but twice, adapted to new technologies, used as a template for innovation; it became the object of reformers’ ire and bourgeois scorn; and by the twentieth century it had become an afterthought, old-fashioned, manufactured in factories and sold as an object of nostalgia — and a shadow of its former self.
What this colonial gingerbread actually was, why people ate so much of it, why it persisted so long, and how it eventually came to be what we now think of as old-fashioned gingerbread is a story that takes us through three centuries of changes in technology, agriculture, medicine, marketing, culture, and taste. It’s a story of domestic work and industrial might, of convenience foods and holiday treats, of thoughtful craft and rough necessity, of slavery and trade, of science and hokum, and, yes, of sugar and spice. It’s a story, most of all, of how American baking has changed, for better and for worse, in three hundred years. No part of that story is as simple or as straightforward as you might guess: it is, you might say, a picaresque tale, wandering here and there and everywhere on its way to climax and denouement.
Here are a few of the things I’m exploring in my book:
- What did food actually taste like, say, 200 years ago? What was the experience of eating it? Answering those questions requires understanding the ingredients (and the agriculture and technology that produced them), the methods of preparation, the science of baking, the physical milieu, and the expectations and assumptions of the cook and the consumer. That means mashing up historical scholarship and experimental reenactment in a way that doesn’t lend itself to single-sentence explanations, but I’ve blogged about it fairly extensively. (There will be recipes, adapted and tested and explained.)
- What were people actually cooking and eating, and why? The what would seem to be the easy part of this, but these people weren’t tweeting their menus, and just because you own a cookbook doesn’t mean you use it, or use it extensively or literally. Sometimes, again, getting into people’s heads requires getting into their bodies — not just reading what they said and wrote but trying to do what they did.
- How did home baking change from the colonial period to the 20th century, and in particular, how did science and technology change it? Chemical leaveners, for example, have turned out to be surprisingly interesting. (No, really!) The pseudoscientific hogwash that flowed between the gutters of Victorian publishing on the topic of chemistry and diet is simply astonishing.
- What’s with all the nostalgia about gingerbread? Somewhere in our fuzzy American collective consciousness is a shifting notion of a past golden age of American baking — a notion that historians are not immune to. Did that golden age ever really exist? If so, when, and what was it like, and why did it happen? And if not (and if you’ve read my other work you just know I’m going to tell you it never happened), how did that notion come about?
- Did industrialization and marketing really make American “cuisine” the sorry thing it had become by the middle of the twentieth century? That’s the tale most often told. But cultural changes also drove, and controlled, the way women adopted technology into their kitchens. Which came first, then — culture or technology? Why, ultimately, don’t Americans bake any more?
I can’t give you a timeline for publication, but check this site for recipes, observations, ramblings, and tidbits of research.