Helen Oyeyemi baked, and ate, a lot of gingerbread while writing her sixth novel, Gingerbread. There was the chewy, dense Yorkshire Parkin, often consumed during Guy Fawkes celebrations, and a crispy, crumbly one, almost like a digestive cookie. She polished off several tins of the famed gingerbread from Grasmere, in the northwest of England, where poet William Wordsworth lived for more than a decade. She tried Emily Dickinson’s own recipe — “my favorite-favorite,” she told me recently — baskets of which Dickinson would lower out her window to the children playing in her family’s gardens below. There was one ill-fated experiment with a clean-eating recipe, which Oyeyemi described as “gingerbread minus the gingerbread.”
“I wanted to have a sensory connection to it,” she told me recently. “I was trying to probe gingerbread itself and ask it what it means.” Oyeyemi, who was born in Nigeria and grew up in Lewisham, a neighborhood in South London, now lives in Prague, which, among other things, is home to a gingerbread museum. She wrote her first novel, The Icarus Girl, while still in secondary school; her sixth, the collection What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours, won the PEN Open Book Award in 2017. It’s about keys.
And Gingerbread, well, it really is about gingerbread. Specifically, it’s about the Lee family — Harriet, her daughter Perdita, and her mother Margot — and their gingerbread recipe, which has been passed down through the generations. “Harriet Lee’s gingerbread,” Oyeyemi writes, opening the novel, “is not comfort food. There’s no nostalgia baked into it, no hearkening back to innocent indulgences and jolly times at nursery. It is not humble, nor is it dusty in the crumb.” Natives of the fictional Druhástrana, the Lees arrive in London with little but their gingerbread recipe, which anchors them in their home country. There, its value is clear. But in London, it’s eyed warily; Harriet’s habit of proffering tins of gingerbread to new acquaintances marks her as an outsider. Still, gingerbread is, quite literally, their ticket back to Druhástrana, and it’s the only thing Harriet thinks she has to offer to her new home and new friends, who are less-than-receptive to the gift.
But even more broadly, Gingerbread is about stories — who tells them, who hears them, and what they mean. It’s only when Perdita embarks on the perilous journey to Druhástrana, with the aid of a poison-laced hedgehog-shaped gingerbread, that Harriet begins to unfold her life story. As it turns out, gingerbread, the food, is sort of the ideal vector for storytelling, because gingerbread is all about making up stories. It’s been used over the course of its history as a vessel for meaning: It’s been luxurious and refined; comforting, treacly, and homey; threatening and insidious. As it’s become established in different cultural contexts, rituals and stories have sprung up around it. Back in Druhástrana, Harriet Lee spent some time working on a gingerbread farm, where one team was tasked exclusively with “concocting gingerbread lore,” inventing stories with titles like Gifts of the Four Wise Men: Gold, Frankincense, Myrrh + Gingerbread. The gingerbread exists; the narratives develop later.
Gingerbread evolved slowly and its origins are indistinct, but ginger, the spice, began moving west from its Southeast Asian island origins by the first century A.D.; even earlier archeological evidence suggests ginger was traded across the Mediterranean in ancient Greece. (The ancient Egyptians also molded honey cake, a close relative of gingerbread, into human shapes, according to the Encyclopedia of Kitchen History.) By the 16th century, gingerbread, which was until then made with breadcrumbs and honey instead of flour and molasses and bore some similarities to Chinese spice breads, had made its way into Queen Elizabeth I’s court, where gingerbread men were distributed among visitors, according to the Oxford Companion to Sugar and Sweets, and into the pages of Shakespeare as an emblem of wealth and luxury. At the time, spices like ginger were still a highly valued commodity in Europe: In Shakespeare’s Love’s Labour’s Lost, the peasant Costard announces, “An I had but one penny in the world, thou shouldst have it to buy gingerbread.”
Gingerbread set down roots in Germany, France, Switzerland, Sweden, and England; as it was adopted into various cultures, it was refashioned in their image and christened anew: lebkuchen, parkin, pepparkakor, pain d’épices, leckerli, pfeffernüsse, harcake, pierniki. Towns like Pardubice, in the Czech Republic, which Oyeyemi visited while researching Gingerbread, Torun, in Poland, and Nuremberg, in Germany, are synonymous with the baked goods they produce; in 1996, the European Union granted Nuremberg’s lebkuchen “protected geographical indication,” much like wines in France.
Ingredients vary by region, but, ginger aside, gingerbread usually comprises flour, sugar, butter, eggs, spices, and molasses. The Oxford Companion to Food contains separate entries for gingerbread and ginger biscuits, albeit with an acknowledgement that they “sometimes overlap.” Harriet Lee’s recipe makes both: “the kind your teeth snap into shards and the kind your teeth sink into,” Oyeyemi describes. “Both are dark and heavy and look like they’ll give you a stomach ache.” Since what, exactly, constitutes a gingerbread varies so widely, it makes an especially good mirror for what’s going on around it; it can project different qualities depending on what’s required of it. It’s “exactly as delicious as it has to be,” Oyeyemi writes, and “an ideal vehicle for returning its consumers to a certain moment in their lives.”
The treat did not remain a symbol of privilege and superficial refinement; by the 19th century, it had made its way into children’s tales as a less ostentatious indicator of hominess, coziness, and familiarity. In 1875, “The Gingerbread Boy” — in which a boy made of, you got it, gingerbread dances across the countryside, mocking all the creatures that can’t eat him because of how fast he runs, till he finally gets caught — appeared in St. Nicholas Magazine and was inscribed into the collective consciousness. Prior to that, according to a note from the author in a later issue of St. Nicholas magazine, it had been passed down orally. Another iteration of the tale emerged in Norway, attributed to Peter Christen Asbjørnsen and published in English in 1881, according to the Critical Survey of Mythology and Folklore. The preeminent children’s magazine during its lifespan — contributors included Mark Twain, Frances Hodgson Burnett, and Rudyard Kipling — St. Nicholas shuttered in 1940, but over the course of 1875, gingerbread appeared in no fewer than five other short children’s tales, usually a picnic provision or supplied by a parent. (“The Gingerbread Boy” aside, none of them are animate.)
“I think it is, in some way, an emotional shorthand for something that is homemade, cozy, traditional, even,” Oyeyemi said, “something that we offer with sort of wholesome intent.” It’s been adopted into the lore of American first families — Mary Ball Washington, for example, is said to have served her gingerbread to the Marquis de Lafayette around the time of the American Revolution — and, since 1969, the White House chef has prepared an annual holiday gingerbread house. But that kind of mythology can easily be subverted; over time, the White House gingerbread has grown more elaborate and conspicuous, more aligned with a specifically American kind of maximalism than a modest relatability. In 2013, the largest-ever gingerbread house was erected in a town northwest of Houston, Texas.
This reputation also disguises gingerbread’s other dimension, which, as Oyeyemi put it, “is frankly a little bit strange and wild, a sort of shadowy thing to it.” In the original Brothers Grimm telling of “Hansel and Gretel,” which dates to 1812, the titular brother and sister are born to a poor woodcutter and his wife at the height of a famine. (Though Gingerbread contains characters named Hansel and Gretel and ample gingerbread, it’s worth noting that, unlike her previous books Mr. Fox and Boy, Snow, Bird, this one is not a retelling of a fairytale.) The woodcutter leads his children into the forest and leaves them to their fate — fewer mouths to feed — where they happen upon a house made of bread with a roof of cake and windows of sugar, bait for two starving children.
Harriet Lee’s gingerbread was borne out of similar necessity: It’s one of her family’s “lean-year recipes,” which “are all about minimizing waste and making that which is indigestible just about edible.” That is, they used ginger, cloves, nutmeg, and cinnamon to disguise blighted rye. “Gingerbread made the difference between choking down risk and swallowing it gladly,” Oyeyemi writes. Like everything, gingerbread is subject to capitalism, its value dependent on who’s buying, bartering, and selling — and where. (Oyeyemi described this as the novel’s “kind of neoliberalist problem” in a recent interview.) In Druhástrana, the gingerbread farm, operated by underage labor, seems to promise immense wealth — its customers willing to pay for the experience of this “authenticity theme park” where gingerbread’s worth determined in part by the story attached to it — but Harriet soon learns her wages have been paid out in counterfeit bills. Later, Harriet and the other gingerbread farm girls bake gingerbread shivs to use against their enemies, demonstrating the peril that bubbles beneath the farm’s wholesome surface; the risk is still there — it’s just made palatable with dashes of spices and sugar.
Even Hansel and Gretel’s house in the forest, while warm and enticing at first, turns menacing: A witch lives inside, and she’d like nothing more than to fatten up these two kids and boil them whole. A gingerbread house is sort of like “a trick of the light,” Oyeyemi said — look at it one way, and it offers safe harbor; another, and it’s certain death. (Druhástrana, the Lees’ home country, is sort of like a gingerbread house, too: Denied diplomatic recognition, its fictional Wikipedia page in the book describes it as “an alleged nation state of indeterminable geographic location.” It’s there, but only if you look at it just right.) In the Grimm tale, Hansel and Gretel follow a trail of breadcrumbs out of the forest to their salvation; in Gingerbread, the gingerbread ushers Perdita Lee back to Druhástrana, and by the end of the novel, a gingerbread house, “straight out of a story,” has surfaced in the middle of a field in Korea. The gingerbread is both the house and the breadcrumb trail, the destination and the map there.
“They say there’s no story here, but there is,” one character tells Harriet midway through Gingerbread. She’s talking about an abandoned well, but as the novel itself demonstrates, everything has a story — including gingerbread. It’s been the centerpiece for so many stories, but gingerbread’s role in those tales evolves with its telling, often used as a repository that can be filled with whatever narrative its context demands. Its meaning, like Harriet Lee’s gingerbread recipe, is mutable: It’s luxury and modesty, horror and comfort, a recipe for the lean years and for the plentiful ones, nourishing and toxic, “enticing and repulsive at the same time,” Oyeyemi said during a reading at Brooklyn’s Greenlight Bookstore in early March. It can be the thing, and its inverse.
“Everything has changed except the gingerbread,” Harriet thinks, “which is both trick and treat.” It just depends on who’s telling the story.
Katherine Cusumano is a Brooklyn-based writer, editor, and cherry pie enthusiast whose work has appeared in Edible Queens, Literary Hub, Bon Appétit, and others.
Carolyn Figel is a freelance artist living in Brooklyn.
Fact-checker: Dawn Mobley
Editor: Erin DeJesus