The Decline and Fall of Gingerbread

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.

gingerbread

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:

I can’t give you a timeline for publication, but check this site for recipes, observations, ramblings, and tidbits of research.