Tuesday, November 30, 2010

A Brief History of Gingerbread

Fascinating is the word that best describes the lore of that delectable holiday treat we call gingerbread. Ginger root has been treasured from antiquity for seasoning food and for medicinal purposes. About 800BC, the Greeks invented gingerbread. Called “melitates,” it was a solid block made of honey combined with flour, ginger, and spices.

By the 14th century, Germans had refined the lump into fanciful shapes using carved wooden molds. This idea spread into England where Queen Elizabeth I is credited with inventing the first gingerbread man. The first gingerbread guilds appeared in Germany in the 16th century and as the popularity of gingerbread grew, the cry of the gingerbread hawker was heard in the streets. In the early 17th century, the French and English added eggs, flour, and honey. When molasses from North America became available to the English, it was often used as sweetening.

Early settlers to the American Colonies brought their cravings for gingerbread with them and gingerbread assumed a variety of roles in Colonial lifestyles. Traditionally, the first Tuesday in June was “Muster Day” in the Colonies. The citizenry would turn out to view the local militia train while the ladies would serve gingerbread as the treat for the day. Gingerbread was also used as a bribe to voters to elect certain candidates to the House of Burgesses.

In some of the Colonies, on December 21st, the schoolboys would “bar the master,” arriving to school early in the morning to ensure the schoolmaster could not enter. After some half hearted pleading and the offering of gingerbread as ransom, the teacher would give up and declare a holiday over Christmas. At New Years, parents would encourage their children to eat a gingerbread hornbook so that they would be smart in the new year for having eaten all the knowledge of the hornbook.

Throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries, as throngs of German immigrants found their home in Fort Wayne, merging with the existing English population, our community’s ancestors solidified the traditional celebration of gingerbread, which has manifested itself in the annual Festival of Gingerbread for 25 years. Join us at the History Center through Sunday, December 12th as we celebrate the Silver Anniversary of the Festival of Gingerbread.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Quest Club's New Book

In December 1911, a group of local businessmen lamented the rapid changes taking place in the business world and their own limitations in keeping up with the latest management techniques. There were no MBA programs at the time, and few business schools of any kind. In order to stay competitive, they sought a way of improving their knowledge of sales techniques, marketing, employee management, and ways of streamlining the management of their firms. To achieve these goals, they organized a new club, known as the Quest Club, where they could meet to hear lectures, both from outside experts as well as among their own membership. They also organized their own circulating library of business and economic books. The club model was similar to that of the lyceum, which had been popular across America in the mid-19th century, where gentlemen read books and listened to lectures as a means of self improvement.

The club became popular. Many local business leaders joined (by invitation only), and eventually the membership expanded to include a variety of other professions, including lawyers, architects, clergy, physicians, and educators. With the expanding membership came more variety in the papers presented (which were now assigned to the members to present). Club members heard papers on current events, literature, the arts, and the physical and social sciences. Over the years the club discussed a variety of issues of importance to the city, including elevating the railroad tracks, establishing the Fine Arts Foundation, and creating a new university that eventually became Indiana University-Purdue University at Fort Wayne. The club voted to include women as members in 1993.

Today, the club continues to adhere to its founding principles of life-long learning, a love of research, providing a forum for wide-ranging discussions on controversial issues, and civil discourse. As the club approaches its centennial, it has published its second book, Quest Club: The First 100 Years. The book includes a variety of great essays from its past and covers a wide range of subjects: poetry, civil religion, Kurt Vonnegut, Stephen Sondheim, the mystery of Stradivarius violins, jazz, cosmology, and Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address, to name just a few. The book's Foreword was written by Allen Steere, a long-time executive with the Lincoln National Life Insurance Company who passed away recently at age 102.

The book is available at the History Center's Gift Shop for $25. The eclectic mix of essays symbolizes the diversity of the club's focus over its past century and is itself a great souvenir of Fort Wayne history.