Published December 23, 2020 at 9:04 AM EST
When you hear the word “gingerbread,” you might think Christmas. But in southeast Kentucky, when people of a certain age hear “gingerbread,” they think Election Day.
In a special report as part of the Inside Appalachia Folkways Project, Nicole Musgrave, traces the surprising history of gingerbread in Knott County, Kentucky from everyday treat, to election time tradition, to fundraising champion.
Gingerbread Was A Household Staple
In her cozy kitchen in Hindman, Kentucky, LaRue Laferty watches over her teenage grandson, Jaxon Conley, as he makes a fresh batch of gingerbread. All of the ingredients are sitting on the green countertop of the kitchen island. So are the necessary tools, like metal baking sheets, measuring spoons, and a KitchenAid stand mixer.
Laferty, who is in her 80s, has a head full of short, white hair. She wears glasses and a green cotton face mask, and uses a walker to move around her kitchen. If you ask folks around Knott County who the best gingerbread bakers are, Laferty’s name usually comes up.
“I don’t really profess to be a gingerbread-making queen, but I do make a lot,” she says.
When she was growing up, gingerbread was a year-round household staple.
“Anytime we went to grandmother’s, she had it,” Laferty says. “And my mother made it all the time, she kept it made.”
Knott County gingerbread isn’t crisp, snappy cookies, and it’s not moist, fluffy cake. It’s somewhere in between. Bob Young is a local historian born and raised in Knott County. He is in his 70s and he remembers most of the women in his family made this style of gingerbread.
“Gingerbread as we knew it here was just a glorified biscuit,” Young says. “And full, absolutely full of molasses.”
Before white sugar became easily accessible in southeast Kentucky, molasses was the primary sweetener. Every fall, sugarcane farmers hosted stir-offs. Folks gathered to watch as the sugarcane juice was boiled down to a sticky syrup, and they left with full jars to stock their pantries.
Aside from powdered ginger, the other ingredients—flour, fresh eggs, buttermilk and lard—were things people already had on hand. That made gingerbread inexpensive.
“Gingerbread was something that anybody, anybody nearly could get,” Young says.
Just A Nice Little Way To Ask For A Vote
One place you were sure to find gingerbread in Knott County was at the polls on Election Day.
“The candidates, they would hire good gingerbread makers in the community to make gingerbread, and they would give it out at the polls,” Laferty says.