Tanzina Vega: You're listening to The Takeaway. I'm Tanzina Vega. We're all looking for some wisdom and comfort lately. Back in 1994, Jerry Seinfeld gave us some sage advice on his television show that may just help us get through these tough times.
Jerry Seinfeld: If people would only look to the cookie, all our problems would be solved.
Tanzina Vega: We're taking Jerry's advice and ending the show today with a look at the holiday cookie, and how the centuries-old tradition of baking cookies during this time of the year, became a staple of our modern holiday season. Michael Krondl is a food writer, culinary historian, and the author of Sweet Invention: A History of Dessert. Michael, thanks so much for joining us.
Michael Krondl: It's a pleasure.
Tanzina Vega: The cookie, where did this delicious treat come from?
Michael Krondl: Oh, dear. Cookies go way back, probably back to gingerbread and little gingerbread morsels from the Middle Ages when you would get these exotic spices, expensive spices coming in from the Far East. These precious morsels would be made for special holidays, not necessarily for Christmas, but any sort of special holiday because, what did they have in them? They had honey because they didn't have sugar in Europe at the time, and cloves, and cinnamon and all these things that were in many ways considered literally the aroma of paradise because they came from this Eastern magical place. There was a lot of hype around this sort of thing in those days.
Tanzina Vega: Did everybody eat what was then considered a cookie, or was this reserved for the upper echelon of society?
Michael Krondl: Everybody in cities, because this would be something that regular people would eat on very, very special occasions. For the super-rich, there was nothing special about this, but this might be the sort of thing that might be reserved for a very special event, Saint. Nicholas Day in the Netherlands for example, or Christmas. That's the thing about cookies. Cookies are special because 100 years ago, 150 years ago, they included expensive ingredients that people would be the only pull out for these occasions two or three times a year. This is why they become associated with holidays.
Tanzina Vega: There is one cookie-- I mean, there are many cookies that we're baking for the holidays, but there's one thing that stood out to me, particularly this year, as I see a lot of people posting images on Facebook, and it is the gingerbread house. Where did this idea come from to make, not just gingerbread cookies, but gingerbread houses with frosting and entire communities around them?
Michael Krondl: I'd love gingerbread houses. There used to be these competitions in New York, I guess we're not having that anymore, where hotels would fight it out who had the best gingerbread house. Gingerbread houses like so many traditions that we have, like Christmas trees, for example, are a German thing. Think Hansel and Gretel. What Hansel and Gretel find in the forest is a gingerbread house.
They come in the 19th century, again, like so many of these Germanic kind of traditions, and are adapted or adopted by Americans. Gingerbread houses are pretty simple, to begin with, but of course, they get more elaborate as the decades go on.
Tanzina Vega: Then, of course, there are those who bake Christmas cookies in the shape of things like Christmas trees and ornaments and very elaborate cookies. Where did that tradition come from?
Michael Krondl: There is this really old tradition, and there's records of this actually in the Middle Ages in southern Italy, of baking cookies in the shape of people's limbs. What they would do is that they would then bring them to church and have these things blessed and consequently, the part, you would bring an arm in that would hurt or your leg in that would hurt, and it would then be cured through this blessing.
People would do the same thing with hearts. You would give somebody a gingerbread heart as a literal way of saying, "Hey, I kind of like you." This goes into Santa Claus, so that the Dutch make the Sinterklaas or Sint-Nicolaas cookies. When you eat these cookies, in a sense, you're imbibing some of that saintliness of the saint. In a sense, you eat a Christmas tree, [chuckles] you're eating Christmas, you're eating the special holiday experience.
Tanzina Vega: Are we the only ones here in the United States who bake cookies around this time of year, or is this more of a global phenomenon, or are there things that people in other countries are baking now that are not cookies?
Michael Krondl: I think that again, this idea of Christmas cookies, like the idea of the gingerbread, like the idea of the Christmas tree, comes from the Germanic part of Europe. In Germany, and particularly in places like Austria, the Czech Republic, and that central European area, they have a vast repertoire of Christmas cookies, and Christmas cookies are definitely a huge thing. I'm Czech, originally, and there are cookbooks devoted to Christmas cookies. That is picked up in the United States, of course, sometime in the 19th century, and these are the two Christmas cookie superpowers.
In England, there's still this kind of association with fruitcake and steamed pudding, like you have in all those songs. The French, of course, have their Bûche De Noël. The Bûche which originally was supposed to imitate this log that would burn for 12 days of the 12 Days of Christmas, has now turned into-- sometimes it looks like a log but again, these days in Parisian patisseries, there's this tremendous competition between the pastry makers, and the Bûche De Noël has become anything but a Bûche. They'll turn it into a school bus, they'll turn it into a palace, all sorts of very imaginative and expensive treats for the holiday.
Tanzina Vega: How's the pandemic effected our cookie-making tradition?
Michael Krondl: I was looking at some stats. We, of course, don't have stats for today, but we do have stats of about a month ago, and apparently the butter sales in this country are going off the charts. Apparently, they have sold something like 20%, more butter this year, as of November, than they did all of last year. Don't forget that all the restaurants or many of the restaurants are closed. People are cooking at home and what do they do with butter? Let's face it. Cookies are butter, sugar, and flour. I'm not sure that we have any statistics on this, but I bet a heck of a lot of that butter is going into cookies this year.
Tanzina Vega: Michael, are there any excellent favorite holiday cookie recipes that you might want to share? Is there one cookie in particular that you think marks the season?
Michael Krondl: I do think that gingerbread has this centuries-old tradition. Anything with gingerbready kind of qualities, gingerbread men, gingerbread trees, is so deep in European Christmas culture. I happen to think that it's whatever your culture is. I'm coming from the Czech Republic, for us, various kinds of vanilla crescents are quintessentially Christmassy. For others, it's various kinds of stars, jam-filled cookies. I think in the United States, what really says Christmas though, is decorated cookie. A simple cookie, but cut into all sorts of fun shapes and go crazy with the decoration.
Tanzina Vega: Michael Krondl, is a food writer, culinary historian, and author of Sweet Invention: A History of Dessert. Michael, thanks for joining us.
Michael Krondl: It was a pleasure. Thank you.
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