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Harmon’s Histories: Christmas in Montana means mountains of gingerbread

Jim Harmon is a longtime Missoula news broadcaster, now retired, who writes a weekly history column for Missoula Current. You can contact Jim at harmonshistories@gmail.com.

“In one of the counties of Montana,” reported the Neihart Herald on April 15, 1899, “is a mountain of gingerbread overhanging a lake of custard pudding.”

Naturally, one is inclined to believe the report – after all, it was in the paper!

Then again, the same article spoke of “springs of lager beer … fissure veins full of mince pie … placer deposits of red pepper and natural wells of tomato catsup (today known as ketchup),” so perhaps one should be a bit suspicious.

Nonetheless, this represents just part of the extensive … the in-depth … one could even say, the massive … research undertaken by your author into the history of the holiday favorite called gingerbread.

The Neihart Herald, April 15, 1899

That history takes us back to Greece, China, the Silk Road and Medieval fairs.

Ginger root is said to have been cultivated in ancient China and used as medicine and used “during the Middle Ages to disguise the taste of preserved meats.” Henry VIII is said “to have used a ginger concoction in hopes of building a resistance to the plague.”

The popularity of gingerbread cookies is attributed to Queen Elizabeth, who “had some made to resemble the dignitaries visiting her court. Over time some of these festivals came to be known as Gingerbread Fairs.” 

Gingerbread houses date to 16th century Germany and soon became part of the Christmas tradition and contributed to the writings of the Brothers Grimm (“Hansel and Gretel”).

Of course, for the finest gingerbread cookie, one must have the finest ginger – and for that we turn to Dr. Price, whose advertising is quite convincing.

“His bottles of flavorings hold one-half more than others hold for the same size, and every flavor is true to its name, made from select fruits and aromatics, and it’s cheaper, as it is only necessary to use a small quantity to obtain each particular flavor, natural and delicate.”

Helena Weekly Herald, February 26, 1874

Lots of folks, to this day, go all out with their gingerbread houses at Christmas time. The official 2021 Gingerbread White House has been designed to honor the country’s front-line health workers. According to the White House, “The pastry team used 55 sheets of baked gingerbread, 120 pounds of pastillage, 35 pounds of chocolate, and 25 pounds of royal icing.”

Now at such a joyous time of year, I hesitate to share the following – but, gingerbread unfortunately has at times been used inappropriately. I cite this story from 1892, concerning an incident involving British Prime Minister William Ewart Gladstone.

Gladstone, while driving through Chester today to attend a meeting of a liberal club, was struck by a flying missile near the eye. He announced his determination to attend the meeting, regardless of the accident, and was cheered lustily by the crowd, who witnessed the deed.

“It has been ascertained that the guilty person is a woman, and the missile a large piece of hard gingerbread.”

William Ewart Gladstone

Our tasty holiday treat has also served as a method of reminding our youth of proper grammar and syntax.

Youth’s Companion magazine, in 1901, carried the story of the “Little G-Dropper” which is what a professor’s wife called her niece Natalie. It seems Natalie had the bad habit of dropping the “g” at the end of certain words. She would say, “I’m sorry, auntie, and I’m goin’ to stop droppin’ ’em right straight off.”

On her next birthday, Natalie was surprised to receive a small gift box from her aunt containing “a little pile of gingerbread g’s!” Included with the gift was a small note suggesting Natalie: “Take one every time you feel an ‘ing word’ coming on. Repeat dose, if not relieved.”

Well, all this writing about gingerbread is making me hungry! So I end with a couple of old-time recipes.

From the Rocky Mountain Husbandman newspaper, June 08, 1882:

“Sponge Gingerbread. Take one cupful of sugar, one cupful of sour milk, one small teaspoonful of soda, one cup of molasses,, four eggs, the yolks and whites beaten separately, one cup of butter, one tablespoonful of ginger, one cup of raisins, four cups of flour. In place of sour milk and soda, you may use sweet milk and baking powder. Beat it all thoroughly but quickly, and get it into the oven as soon as possible.”

Clement C. Moore

From The Philipsburg Mail, June 06, 1895: “Spiced Gingerbread. One cup of molasses, half cup of butter, two- thirds cup of sour milk, one teaspoon-full each of soda, ginger, cinnamon and clove, flour to make a stiff batter.

Happy baking!

And from 19th century author Clement Clarke Moore: “Merry Christmas to all, and to all a goodnight.”

Jim Harmon is a longtime Missoula news broadcaster, now retired, who writes a weekly history column for Missoula Current. You can contact Jim at harmonshistories@gmail.com. His new book, “The Sneakin’est Man That Ever Was,” a collection of 46 vignettes of Western Montana history, is now available at harmonshistories.com.