In this installment of our series on foods of the African diaspora, Jessica B. Harris shares a delicious recipe for gingerbread that’s perfect for year’s end.
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raw ginger bread batter in a 8x8 glass baking dish
Credit: Andrea Mathis

Gingerbread has long been a part of baking traditions. The first references to it appear in ancient Egypt and Greece, where it was used for ritual purposes. In Europe, gingerbread probably arrived with the Crusaders, who brought back ginger and other aromatics from the Middle East. It was popular in northern Europe and was thought to ease digestion. In the English-speaking world, Queen Elizabeth I of England was one of the first people to serve it, and Shakespeare references it in Love's Labour's Lost.

The first American references to gingerbread appear in recipes from the first printed American cookbook: Amelia Simmons' American Cookery. One of them presents a different form of gingerbread that's more like a ginger cake because it was made with molasses, a byproduct of sugar cane production that was cheaper than sugar and produced a softer crumb. This secondary form of gingerbread is the one I remember from my childhood. My mother would bake a pan of it every year during the holiday season.

As they make the publicity rounds, it is customary for cookbook authors to bring a taste of something from the book for their various interviewers. In 1995, when I published A Kwanzaa Keepsake, I included a recipe for this type of gingerbread. While making the rounds for the book, I decided to bring some gingerbread. One of the people who interviewed me was the late Betty Shabazz, Malcolm X's widow. Imagine my surprise when she was charmed by the gingerbread and told me that it had been one of Malcolm X's favorite sweets. She had baked it for him often. Since that moment, I cannot eat the spicy cake without thinking of him.

Recently, upon hearing of the death of Malcolm X's youngest daughter, Malikah, I thought back to my brief moment with her mother. This year when I bake my annual pan of gingerbread, I will think of them and hope they are all together at peace, perhaps feasting on some gingerbread.

hot water gingerbread
Credit: Andrea Mathis

Gingerbread Cake

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This essay is part of the series "Diaspora Dining: Foods of the African Diaspora." In this monthly column with essays and recipes by Jessica B. Harris, Ph.D., we explore the rich culinary traditions of the African diaspora. Harris is a culinary historian and the author of 13 books related to the African diaspora, including Vintage Postcards from the African World (University Press of Mississippi), My Soul Looks Back (Scribner) and High on the Hog (Bloomsbury USA), on which the Netflix documentary series High on the Hog is based. She is the 2020 recipient of the James Beard Lifetime Achievement Award. For more from Harris on EatingWell, see Migration Meals: How African American Food Transformed the Taste of America and her Juneteenth Celebration Menu. Follow her on Instagram @drjessicabharris.