Allandale Farm in Brookline harvested its first crop of fresh ginger this fall. Farmer Jim Buckle shows me some Zingiber officinale plants with tall leafy shoots, the last of some 500 containers that will soon be gone. This trial crop has been a big success. Next year the tropical and subtropical plants will be kept in greenhouses throughout their summer growing season, he tells me, so they’ll have lots of them in the fall.
Buckle pulls up a stalk from the soil, revealing the tattoo of a whole beet plant on one forearm and a carrot on the other. In his enthusiasm for ginger, I wonder if that will be his next tattoo. He brushes away the dirt and shows me the young pink and white rhizome, whose thin skin scrapes off easily. It grows laterally, with stringy roots reaching down into the soil and new shoots stretching up from the knobby eyes. These tender ginger rhizomes are much “juicier and less fibrous,” he says, than the older tan-colored gingerroot we see at the supermarket. These are easier to skin, slice, mince and grate in ways that Americans are using in their cooking as never before.
In Southeast Asia ginger has been cultivated for so long, over 3,000 years, that its place of origin has been forgotten. It is unknown in the wild. Throughout the region fresh “green” ginger has been an important spice in savory dishes of all sorts, also pickled, but seldom sweet. In the West ginger has usually been dried and ground into powder—more convenient for distant travel—or preserved in honey and, later on, after the manufacture of cane sugar was understood, candied and conserved in sugar.
The Romans valued ginger for its medicinal uses against nausea, arthritis and other ills, as people do today, and undoubtedly came to desire it as an aphrodisiac too. Only later did they begin to appreciate it in cooking, a typical progression for the acceptance of a new food ingredient. After the fall of the Roman Empire, Arab traders continued to import ginger to the Mediterranean basin and from there it made its way north to Europe. Arabs and, later, Iberian sailors introduced it to tropical islands around the globe, where the spice trade came to wield great economic influence. Over the centuries, Indian and Muslim cultures have tended to use dried ginger in spice blends such as curry, garam masala, berbere and ras el hanout. European and Christian cultures have leaned toward sweet dessert cakes and pastries.
In the early Middle Ages, tribes in central and northern Europe made cakes for the winter solstice impressed with the image or symbol of a god, such as Woden, or his horse, which they gave in offering during their Yule celebration. When Christians came to convert these pagans, the tradition was absorbed, overlaying pagan symbols with patron saints, knights on horseback, Bible stories and other motifs. These evolved into Springerle cookies with various spices and honey. The dough was pressed into a carved wooden mold, often finely detailed. As the cookies were very hard, they kept well.
Specialty groups of bakers, precursors of guilds, oversaw the making of these cookies, which developed into an art form: Some of the carved wooden molds are displayed in German museums today. Towns were proud of their own particular designs. The city of Nuremburg, at the intersection of important trade routes, was famous for the dark honey and rich spices in its Springerle. These cookies are related to Spekulatius cookies and the Speculaas of the Netherlands.
Lebkuchen, a cake aromatic with spices, honey, eggs and flour, is directly related. The dough requires curing and, once baked, elaborate decoration incorporates icing or chocolate, dried fruit, nuts, often with oblaten wafers on one side. They can take days to make. Gingerbread houses and gingerbread men follow in the same tradition, using secular motifs that began to reappear in the 18th century. During Christmastime, whether laical or religious, all these gingerbreads and ginger cookies are ubiquitous in Germany and Austria as well as Scandinavia and other parts of northern Europe.
In England gingerbread was popular from the Middle Ages on. An early recipe for those who could afford it included breadcrumbs and honey spiced with ginger, cinnamon, pepper and saffron; the dough was colored red with sandalwood and red wine. By the 17th century eggs and flour replaced breadcrumbs, and this is the gingerbread that colonists made in the New World.
In New England, Amelia Simmons in her American Cookery, published in 1796 and considered the first truly American cookbook, gives at least four recipes for gingerbread. The first has the most detailed directions and, unlike the others, is sweetened with molasses, an inexpensive byproduct of sugarcane processing (in Britain, treacle is a close counterpart of molasses). Later New England cookbook writers such as Lydia Maria Child, Sarah Josepha Hale and Catherine Stowe used both molasses and sugar in their gingerbread, sometimes together.
Molasses was complicated. White sugar implied higher social status, but as a byproduct of sugar refining it was entangled in New England’s rum trade. During the Civil War many Yankees used maple sugar rather than any form of sugarcane for sweetening. After the war, molasses gingerbread came to represent a more frugal cake that was baked at home rather than bought commercially. As many new immigrants arrived from abroad, molasses gingerbread reinforced Yankees’ sense of themselves and their roots in New England.
The first edition of Fannie Merritt Farmer’s The Boston Cooking-School Cook Book was published in 1896, exactly a century after Amelia Simmons’s. It is still in print, many editions later. People today sometimes look at the photograph of Farmer in pince-nez and bun and make negative assumptions about her cooking. In fact, she was ahead of her time in many ways, a true professional who knew her subject thoroughly. Although she presented herself and her recipes plainly, Fannie Farmer took immense pleasure in her work, both in the cooking and the eating of her food. Her 1896 book includes eight different recipes for gingerbread, some with molasses and others with white or brown sugar, as well as several ginger and spice cookies. You can be sure she tested and tasted them all. I think that Farmer, born in Medford and a true Bostonian, would be pleased to know that ginger is being grown here now by farmers like Jim Buckle. She would have been a customer.
Notes for cooks
*Be sure to use unsulfured molasses, always.
*When a recipe calls for ground or powdered spices, try to grind whole spices in a dedicated spice grinder (the same as for coffee beans). The flavor leaps out at you in a most welcome way.
*Fresh gingerroot differs in variety, freshness and many other factors, so use your judgment in determining how much to use in a recipe. For any kind of ginger, go by your sense of taste rather than a measured amount.
*Buy fresh ginger in small quantities. Choose pieces with smooth, unshriveled skin, firm and heavy, indicating juiciness. Color may vary according to variety, not merely age. In general, fresh ginger gets more fibrous and pungent over time. Peel it, then slice across or lengthwise; or mince or grate it according to use and directions. Its savor lasts longer on the palate than dried.
*Dried ground or powdered ginger has heat but lacks the fragrance and dimension of fresh; it loses strength over time, so replace as needed.
*Preserved or crystallized ginger is hot, sweet and piquant all at once, with racy flavor and fragrance that lasts.
Elizabeth Gawthrop Riely's articles have appeared in many newspapers and magazines. Her cookbook, A Feast of Fruits, was published by Macmillan in 1983. Her dictionary, The Chef's Companion (John Wiley & Sons, 3rd edition), remains in print after 25 years. She was editor of The Culinary Times, published by the Schlesinger Library at Radcliffe, from 2000 to 2009. Her article on "John James Audubon's Tastes of America" was in the Summer 2011 issue of Gastronomica. Beth can be reached at email@example.com.