There’s nothing more delicious than learning something new about a well-loved food.
When I think of gingerbread, I think of Emily Dickinson lowering basketfuls to the neighborhood children, Laura Ingalls Wilder setting out a pan to cool at Rocky Ridge Farm, or Emily Brontë baking a family parkin. I’d read about gingerbread’s long and interesting history, marveling that Queen Elizabeth I was essentially responsible for the gingerbread boy cookies we now bake every holiday season. But I never imagined a gingerbread baker could be an unsung hero in Revolutionary history.
Officially hitting shelves today, Mara Rockliff’s Gingerbread for Liberty!: How a German Baker Helped Win the American Revolution (HMH, 2015), introduces young readers to Christopher Ludwick, a German-born American patriot living in Philadelphia, who as Baker General of the Continental Army, fed General George Washington’s troops and even snuck off on a secret mission.
Deemed too old and fat at 56 to enlist as a soldier, Ludwick was nevertheless determined to champion the cause of liberty, independence and freedom with his culinary skills. His gingerbread was the best around, but he was also known for his generosity and philanthropic work, especially on behalf of poor children. His motto was, “No empty bellies here, not in my America!” This tantalizing bit of little-known history is brought to life with Vincent X. Kirsch’s whimsical cut-paper illustrations resembling iced gingerbread cookies, and is a wonderful example of finding creative ways to utilize one’s talents. What a great reminder that one person can make a big difference, and that heroes can sometimes be found in unexpected places.
Lucky for us, Mara is here today to tell us about catching her first whiff of Ludwick’s spicy gingerbread, researching his colorful life, and making his story accessible to picture book readers. Of course I also asked her to share a favorite recipe, so ready your rolling pins. 🙂
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♥ CHATTING WITH MARA ROCKLIFF ♥
How did you first hear about Christopher Ludwick? Why did you think he would be a good subject for a children’s picture book?
I came across Christopher Ludwick’s story in an old magazine from 1964. The article was mainly about food traditions of the Pennsylvania Dutch (or “Deutsch,” meaning German), but it included a couple of paragraphs about an early German-American patriot, a gingerbread baker from Philadelphia who not only fed Washington’s hungry troops but also acted as a secret agent, sneaking behind enemy lines to speak with the hired Hessian soldiers in their own language and convince them to desert.
That grabbed me right away, since it combined fun stuff for kids (secret agent! gingerbread!) with fun stuff for parents and teachers (Washington! Revolutionary War!).
I also thought it was really cool that one of our nation’s first heroes was a bilingual immigrant who used his language skills to help win the war.
Tell us a little about researching Ludwick’s story. Please share a few tidbits that especially surprised or interested you. Any particular details you liked but had to leave out of the book?
Remarkably, no! I always over-research and I love to share. I’d hate to say how many times my editors have had to talk me down from what I’m sure is an absolutely essential (and completely fascinating) ten-page author’s note.
But with this topic, the challenge was finding enough information about Christopher Ludwick’s life. Almost everything we know about him comes from a short biography first published in 1801 (the year he died) by his friend Dr. Benjamin Rush, a Founding Father and signer of the Declaration of Independence. And he slipped out of sight so quickly that by 1922, there was a chapter about Ludwick in a book called The Romance of Forgotten Men.
The amazing thing about this is that Ludwick had a huge and lasting influence. He left his fortune to be used to educate the poor children of the city of Philadelphia, and the Christopher Ludwick Foundation still gives out about $200,000 every year in grants. He should have a statue! Instead, his grave is quietly crumbling away.
In your Author’s Note, you mention that after the British finally surrendered, Washington asked Ludwick to bake 6,000 pounds of bread to feed their former enemies. Did you come across any more details about how he pulled off this gargantuan feat?
Well, he was already set up to feed an army. I’m sure as the baker general he had lots of help!
What was the most challenging part of writing this book?
The trick for me was giving just enough context about the Revolution, while keeping the focus on Ludwick’s story. It’s such a fun, kid-friendly bit of history, and I wanted to make sure I made it simple enough for a five-year-old to understand and enjoy. At the same time, a child that age might not even know about the Revolution, let alone why German soldiers would be fighting on the British side. So that was the big challenge.
Did you learn anything especially fascinating about gingerbread? Was it considered a staple during Colonial times, as popular as wheat bread?
Maybe as popular as Oreos? I think it was always a treat!
My favorite tidbit about gingerbread came from Patrick Donmoyer at the Pennsylvania German Heritage Center. He told me that, according to PA German tradition, the Easter bunny not only delivered eggs, but laid them too. Then he showed me an old photo of a large gingerbread bunny with—and I’m really not sure how else to put this—a hard-boiled egg stuffed up its butt.
What’s your personal connection to gingerbread?
All I really remember about making it as a kid was how stiff the dough was to mix. My arm got tired really fast! But I like gingerbread. I would eat it any time of year.
What’s the source of the gingerbread recipe in the book? Can you tell us a little about the carved wooden molds Ludwick used for his gingerbread?
I wanted an easy recipe that families could make together, so I looked at lots of different recipes and came up with the simplest, most basic one I could. It makes a nice sturdy dough that tastes good and is very cookie-cutter friendly. Or if you’re lucky enough to own a hand-carved “cookie board” like the ones Christopher Ludwick used, that would work too! These were shallow wooden molds or stamps with elaborate designs both front and back. The Museum of the American Revolution actually owns one that belonged to Ludwick:
What do you like best about Vincent Kirsch’s illustrations? Do you have a favorite spread?
Oh, I think it was very clever how he made everything look like decorated gingerbread! His art is colorful and fun and really gives the book a cheerful air. If I had to pick a favorite, I’d choose the cover. I think it’s irresistible. Besides, my favorite color is blue!
You actually had three picture books published in the past year. Could you briefly tell us about the other two titles?
The Grudge Keeper (Peachtree, illustrated by Eliza Wheeler) is a lighthearted fable full of silly wordplay, about a village where nobody keeps a grudge—instead, they bring them to Cornelius, the grudge keeper. Chik Chak Shabbat (Candlewick, illustrated by Kyrsten Brooker) tells the tale of Goldie, who welcomes a diverse group of neighbors for a special meal every week, and how when things go wrong her neighbors find an unexpected way to save the day.
What’s next for you?
More history—with science! Mesmerized: How Ben Franklin Solved a Mystery that Baffled All of France (Candlewick, illustrated by Iacopo Bruno) comes out at the end of February. It’s a true story about an amazing episode, when Franklin used the scientific method to go head-to-head with the flamboyant Dr. Mesmer, who had dazzled Paris with what he claimed was a powerful hidden force.
Finally, I know you’re an avid baker. Please share a favorite recipe with us.
Here’s a recipe that goes with one of my first picture books, The Busiest Street in Town. I guess I really like ginger! If you love ginger too, I also highly recommend the “Fresh Ginger Cake” recipe in Joy of Cooking.
Sweet and Spicy Ginger Snaps
- 2 cups flour
- 2 teaspoons baking soda
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1/2 cup (1 stick) butter, softened
- 1 cup sugar
- 1/4 cup molasses
- 1 teaspoon cinnamon
- 1 teaspoon cloves
- 1 teaspoon ginger
- 1 egg
Mix dry and wet ingredients in separate bowls, then combine.
Refrigerate dough for awhile so it’s not too sticky.
Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.
Roll dough into balls, place on greased cookie sheet, and press down with fork dipped in sugar.
Bake until they look done. (Or not so done if you like chewy cookies.)
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Please join me now in thanking Mara and Vincent for creating such a fantastic book. Put on your favorite bib, grab your finest pewter spoon, then dip and slurp your hearty congratulations! If no such spoon is available, you may dive right into the bowl, do a few backstrokes, and then cheer with gustatory gusto. 🙂
Now it’s time to click through to your fave online bookseller or march down to your local indie to snatch up your very own copy of GINGERBREAD FOR LIBERTY! If you go to a bricks-and-mortar store, be sure to wear your sauciest cocked hat or ruffled linen cap (silk waistcoats, corsets and Brunswicks optional).
Talk up the book in the checkout line and bribe the cashier with a few gingersnaps. For a discount, don’t forget the secret password: Independence.
★ ★ ★ HAPPY PUB DAY, MARA AND VINCENT! ★ ★ ★
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GINGERBREAD FOR LIBERTY!: How a German Baker Helped Win the American Revolution
written by Mara Rockliff
illustrated by Vincent X. Kirsch
published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, January 2015
Nonfiction Picture Book for ages 6-9, 32 pp.
*Includes Author’s Note, Sources, and Gingerbread Recipe
**A Junior Library Guild Selection
***Starred Reviews*** from Publishers Weekly and School Library Journal
♥ Check out this cool Publisher’s Weekly article for more from Mara and interesting information about Vincent X. Kirsch’s fabulous work on this project (he was the perfect illustrator for this story)!
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★ GINGERBREAD FOR LIBERTY GIVEAWAY! ★
The publisher has generously offered a brand new copy of this fun and fascinating book for one lucky Alphabet Soup reader. For a chance to win, simply leave a comment at this post no later than midnight (EST) Sunday, February 1, 2015. Giveaway open to U.S. residents only, please. Good luck!
Spreads from Gingerbread for Liberty! posted by permission of the publisher, text copyright © 2015 Mara Rockliff, illustrations © 2015 Vincent X. Kirsch, published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. All rights reserved.
Copyright © 2015 Jama Rattigan of Jama’s Alphabet Soup. All rights reserved.