December 17th, 2017
I’m baking gingerbread tomorrow. I spent a moment considering cookies, but the cold gray sky outside and the Christmas songbook of the 1940s that I hear every time I go the grocery store somehow brought gingerbread to mind.
Of course, when I call something “gingerbread,” there’s ambiguity about what I might really be talking about, so let me define this as a heavily spiced, dark quickbread and the kind of thing that in France would be called pain d’epice, or spice bread. My personal favorite is a recipe that claims to be medieval (European) in origin, but which contains both coffee and molasses, thus dating it to the 17th~century or later. But it has an unusual spice combination including a hefty dose of black pepper and in this, it does harken back to medieval tastes.
The role of spices in the the cooking of Europe’s feudal nobility can hardly be overstated. Their food was swamped in spices, so much so that the actual dishes can be best thought of as a carrying surface for the spices. There’s an urban legend that they did this because their food was uniformly rotten, and so otherwise inedible, but this, as we shall see, misses the point entirely.
The story is that an Armenian monk, one Gregory, moved from Greece to France shortly before the turn of the first millennium, and brought the tradition with him. From there, gingerbread spread throughout northern Europe, differentiating into the various hard and soft forms that are now regional specialities. The American quickbread gingerbread seems to trace its lineage back to France and the tastes of an unusual woman, Agnès Sorel.
A fifteenth century beauty, Agnès parlayed her role as lady in waiting for Marie d’Anjou, wife of King Charles VII, into that of the King’s official mistress (the first so recognized) and court taste-maker; when she started wearing her gowns so as to expose one breast, so did the others, lest they be thought old fashioned. But before we stereotype Agnès as a certain kind of courtly denizen, it’s worth pausing to consider what drove her ambition for a better life.
To say that she was the daughter of provincial somebody who was a nobody in the scheme of things is to miss much of the issue. She was a woman in an era not far enough removed from our own, where men held all the reins of power. While she used her charm and beauty to rise through the ranks of ladies in waiting, she seems to have been a formidable intellect as well. She became a crucial advisor to the king in a troubled time; one of her last acts was to travel on horseback nearly two hundred miles through the dead of winter to warn the king of a plot against him — and all while eight months pregnant.
She also, it is said, had an taste for pain d’epice. In a way that remains familiar today, the preferences of the famous became the aspirations of everyone else and so the local bakers – knowing a good thing when they saw it — devoted all their efforts to making pain d’epice. It became a speciality of the city of Reims, and by a century after Agnès had passed on (someone spiced her food with a lethal dose of mercury) the pain d’epice bakers had formed their own guild.
The French tradition crossed the Channel into England and then the Pond into North America and it can be found — in seven different variants — in the very first “American” cook book, American Cookery of 1796. What we see in the book is the adaptation of British recipes to the realities of the North American continent and one of the ways that this manifests is in the use of molasses as a sweetener.
It was an ingredient that Agnès Sorel would never have experienced, because molasses is effectively a waste product of an industry that didn’t exist in her lifetime. I’m referring, of course, the sugar cane plantations of the West Indies. Sugar cane is boiled multiple times to extract the sugar from the cane. Molasses, the last sweetener to be extracted, is the sludge, as it were, of sugar making.
While sugar was exported to the luxury market in Britain, cheaper molasses was fobbed off on the North American colonies, where it found its way into colonial cooking as a savory (and significantly more nutritious) sweetener. But what wasn’t sweet at all about the sugar industry is that it was the most murderous of all the slave-powered plantation agricultures. Being sold as a sugar plantation slave was was a death sentence, no more and no less.
Colonial era sugar making cranked out a lot more molasses than sugar, and it wasn’t long before New Englanders were using the cheap feed stock to produce rum, and lots of it. Taxes on molasses (and by implication, rum), and the geopolitics of whether the New Englanders bought their molasses from British controlled islands or French all lead to molasses being a bone of contention between colony and mother country for decades before the revolution.
By the time Amelia codified her recipes with molasses, the tradition of its use was already over a century old and she was part of the living memory of a war fought, at least in part, over molasses. There’s a certain irony in the favorite snack of the Royal Mistress becoming canonical American cookery in the hands of Amelia because she was, as she identifies herself on the title page of a book that she paid to have published, “an American Orphan.” Amelia was a domestic servant, working the kitchens of early American gentry and engaged in the classic American occupation of bettering herself.
Agnès’ beloved “spiced” bread was very different from Amelia’s. The courtly halls that Agnes briefly held sway over were places where spices were the believed to the literal scent of paradise. Carried half way around the world to the gloomy plains of Northern Europe, these tastes of the tropics became more than just a means of flavoring food, they became something that we can barely imagine, even if our language remembers for us.
When we say that Agnès was a taste-maker at court, we forget that “taste” as in flavor and “taste” as in style were inseparable for everyone in her milieu. Spices were incredibly precious, their rarity and expense leaving them completely out of reach of almost everyone who lived in Europe. But the nobility could afford it, even if just barely. Their use of spices in such extravagant quantities is bewildering until we understand that the combination and intensity of spices conveyed meaning. Blindfold a courtier of that time, and they could tell you which court they were dining in simply by taking a bite of the main course. They could also determine if someone’s fortunes were rising or falling. In a world where status and power were inextricably linked, spices transmitted the message at every meal.
There’s one more key thing to understand what might have been flickering through Agnès Sorel’s mind when she reached for a slice of pain d’epice. No one knew where spices truly came from, but the unearthly scents told them all they needed to know: spices were the scent the breeze carried out of paradise. Not paradise as in a lovely tropical beach, but of literal paradise, the Garden of Eden, the perfect world from which imperfect humanity had been banished.
It’s here, I think, that Agnès Sorel, Amelia Simmons and you and I all find ourselves oddly alike. For Agnès, spice bread, even within the context of court intrigue, would have been an aspiration, a reminder of a better world that the one she inhabited. In American folk cosmology, gingerbread is inextricably linked with the holiday season, but the holiday season itself is a strange mythological creation, a religious occasion swaddled with a dense cloud of cultural touchstones. In a single bite of gingerbread, we are reminded of 150 years of literature and songs, of stories and movies and landscapes that illuminate the childhood of both ourselves and the society we are part of. Like Agnès Sorel, we pause, if only for a moment, to recognize in gingerbread the taste of an exotic faraway place, a better place, a place that existed only in the past.