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Part of the same family as turmeric and cardamom (Zingiberaceae), ginger is indigenous to southern China, but has been consumed for thousands of years (by some accounts, around 5000 years). The name is one of the most ancient derivatives in the history of food, dating back either to the Sanskrit for “horn body” (describing the shape of the root), srngamvera, or the Dravidian word, inchiver, which morphed into the Old French, gingibre. In terms of recorded history, references go back to circa 500 BC in China and India, with the root used both for cooking and in traditional medicine. It was imported from India (which still produces a third of the world’s ginger today) throughout the Roman Empire, where it featured as a regular ingredient in recipes.
Buttermilk-based drinks were flavored with ground ginger root in 11th century Europe, and it was traded—often at great expense—along the Silk Road throughout the Middle Ages. In the 14th century, a pound of ginger was worth as much as a whole sheep. Though originally an Asian spice (as the Sanskrit and Dravidian names imply), ginger was the first such spice to be grown in the New World, was Jamaican ginger plantations were recorded as early as 1585, in order to import to Europe. For this reason it was long referred to as Jamaican ginger, and that’s how George Washington’s mother, Mary Ball Washington, would have known it when she baked gingerbread for a visit to the Marquis de Lafayette, resulting in a soft ginger cake called Gingerbread Lafayette. The first American president even had to settle a leftover bill owed by his wife, Martha’s, deceased first husband, who had ordered 49 pounds of “Cenemont [cinnamon] Gingerbread” which arrived in March 1759 at the Washington home in Mount Vernon. Magnanimous of George Washington, but one wonders whether Martha’s first husband didn’t die of gingerbread overdose. 49 pounds of any cake is a bit much, no matter how good it is.
Not only beer and bread: the uses of ginger
There are myriad uses to ginger, both culinary and medicinal. Ginger is known to soothe stomach ailments and nausea, and for this reason has long been served to pregnant women (to reduce morning sickness) or chewed by seafarers—it has even been shown to slow or prevent cancerous tumor growth in animals. But its particular flavor has been beloved for millennia. Ginger wine hit the market in 1740, when the Finsbury Distillery Company in London fortified wine with ground ginger root and raisons. Ginger beer was brewed in Yorkshire, England in the mid-18th-century, using a recipe of ginger, water, lemon juice, sugar and symbiote (a fungal bacteria that fermented the mixture over the course of a few days, rendering it alcoholic). Ginger ale is produced in two varieties: a pale, milder version made by Canadian John McLaughlin and a goldgen version designed by American doctor Thomas Cantrell. Cantrell invented ginger ale while working as a pharmacist in Belfast, and sold the recipe to the local drinks firm, Grattan and Co.—this version was essentially the same as ginger beer, whereas the “dryer” tasting Canadian version, referred to from 1907 on as “Canada Dry Ginger Ale,” is now the world standard for ginger beverages. From ginger tea to gingerbread to ginger snap cookies, candied ginger and Gari (pickled, thinly-sliced accompaniment to sushi), this is perhaps the world’s most versatile spice, if we count up the diverse ways it is put to use. Sure, salt and pepper and fairly ubiquitous, but ginger appears in such an array of food types, as a primary flavor (whereas salt is largely a flavor enhancer), that it appears tough to beat.
A recipe for gingerbread is said to have been recorded in 2400 BC, and the concept of a ginger cookie shaped like a man is often attributed to Queen Elizabeth I. The combined gastronomic and gastrointestinal benefits of ginger spanned the world in a unique way: not only does much traditional Chinese medicine employ ginger, but King Henry VIII consumed ginger-based potions to ward off the plague. Such phenomena are usually based in certain localities and cultures, but ginger is truly international.