I have an undue fondness for gingerbread, strange only in cultural hindsight, perfectly sensible when seen through the gravitational and time compaction of five decades of food memories. Gingerbread is not a food of my parents’ house, or my Jewish upbringing, or even events of my childhood. It is more journey than origin or destination, and it turns out, possibly runs deeper than I had expected. Food memories are waypoints in our personal history, amplified by the textures and religious overtones of our Jewish holidays. Potato latkes and jelly donuts for Hanukah bookended with matzah for Passover assure nothing, including ancient texts, can be digested easily.
My path to gingerbread starts, I believe, with cinnamon raisin bagels and wends its way to iced Archway molasses and lemon cookies, typically powering some university project or study break that was more olfactory than educational. Two major and regular side trips along the way — my Aunt May’s chocolate cake frosted with love and the petit fours from winter vacations at Host Farms — left me with happy, joyful memories of sugar icing defeating the cold of winter frost.
Gingerbread, then, is an odd destination. It’s not quite culturally forbidden, but it’s up there with eating Chinese food on paper plates in a kosher home. Associations between Christmas and decorated gingerbread men in holiday tins are strong, and perhaps a failed early interest in architecture led me to find gingerbread houses as quirkily quaint as they are delicious in deconstruction. Discovery of Trader Joe’s gingerbread cookies and mixes fueled this strange obsession. Like summer Phish tours and guitar collecting, it’s a peccadillo accepted by my wife as a harmless affectation even if it does lead to caloric entrapment.
Ever interested in my genealogy, I’ve wondered what chromosomal combination made me a Gingerbread Jewish Man. The secret was revealed, perhaps, in multiple trips to Prague. Czechia is the global nexus for gingerbread; the national cookie confection is a cinnamon, pepper and honey that is to Starbucks gingerbread what Zabar’s bagels are to Einstein frozen bread disks. Czech gingerbread is some seriously good stuff.
My personal affiliation for Prague runs deep due to my grandfather’s proclivity for slivovitz (plum brandy). I’m not sure it’s consumed by anyone without some Czech lineage, and that minor fact coupled with a great uncle’s mid-century business connections in Czechoslovakia (he “sourced” Messerschmidt airplane parts for the fledgling Israeli Air Force) were sufficient evidence for me to lay claim to a Czech birthright, if not genetic then at least cultural inheritance.
And so, on the anniversary of my last Christmas season trip to Prague, I present the voyage of the Jewish gingerbread man acolyte.
Things start in the Lufthansa lounge in Frankfurt airport, not exactly known for any food other than year old gummy bears and pretzels the rest of Germany disavows. What should be my warm up act for the gingerbread world tour is severely disappointing. Lufthansa’s gingerbread heart-shaped cookies are chocolate covered, but with the texture and taste of styrofoam. They are the building materials rejected by gingerbread house contractors. As a preface to the main gingerbread event, this is a weak opening act. I take my warm ups very seriously — in hockey it keeps me from further tearing muscles I didn’t know I had, when playing bass it reinforces the muscle memory of frets and strings and fingers that I wish were more defined. This culinary adventure is the equivalent of taking a snapshot at the goalie’s groin during hockey warmups, just to see what you can get away with. It ends quickly but not well.
First stop in Prague, however, is the Namesti Miru (World Square) market in front of Saint Ludmilla. Multiple gingerbread stalls offer up light, delicately iced and fancily decorated cookies, with the usual cast of Christmas characters — Saint Nicholas, the Christmas angel, and the Christmas Devil (not quite our NJ Devils mascot, and much more Krampus like). My tour is now directionally correct; this is at least good gingerbread if not the ultimate snack. The next day is another rung on the ladder, as I duck into the Tesco for gingerbread sandwich cookies, quite simply, the Moon Pies of the Republic. At thirty-five cents each, I’m embarrassed to buy them, as it feels like loading up on loose cigarettes and then sneaking back on the tram with my stash. I have no idea what the fruit flavors are, and I’m assuming the bear on the wrapper indicates “pernik medved” (honey gingerbread) rather than “remaindered bear parts.” After seeing live carp, pig trotters, every kind of sausage known to the Mediterranean in the open air markets, and made brave by enough hot mead to fuel a Grendel remake, I’m more food courageous than normal. The store-bought treats do not disappoint, as they have diversity of texture and taste bud appeal of really solid Czech pernik. It’s a mouth feel depth of field equivalent to what you’d get anywhere in Prague — you see a Communist era office building, a 500 year old church, and an iPhone store, the only constants being food traditions and the crazy straw topology of the streets.
My voyage ends not with a bang but with a soft whimper and whisper. My long-time Czech friend and co-worker Inka is never shy about reminding me of our shared Jewish heritage — her mother Karla was born Jewish and then forced her identity under costume through the aftermath of WWII and the Communist regime in Czechoslovakia. We have a shared history emanating from the Jewish Pale of Settlement — my family took their food and slivovitz preferences and went east into modern Ukraine, Karla’s family stayed and put a sweet coating on their change in affiliations. She is an exemplar of how the Jewish people have survived and passed on their traditions through the steganography of food. If my grandfather traced his Central European heritage through plum brandy, am I wrong to find my own path rooted in gingerbread? Whatever my connection to holiday cookies, nature or nurture, I feel at home a quarter of a world away.
Karla’s cookies are a melange of cutting, baking, assembly with fruit jam and decoration. It’s a labor of love that mashes Willy Wonka and a Swiss watchmaker to produce cookies that are almost — almost — too beautiful to eat. The hand-decorated trees have icing garlands and candy ornamentation; angels spread their granulated sugar wings; the snowmen shine with smiles and buttons. You can taste the love. I am reminded that we are related, by our love of cookies and our paths to sharing them. Our parallel family histories are intertwined, helping each other seek joy in a season of much more open religious rejoicing. The retold stories echo through Karla’s kitchen craft, harmony to her singing in the kitchen, a chorus to my Aunt May’s arias with mixer and spatula, a song of love in this season in our time.