On a recent visit home, I pondered what I have always thought to be the most perfect gingerbread man ever. The cakey confection with a delicate balance of seasonings, an almond nose and raisin buttons and eyes comes from Ukrop’s bakery, and Mom and I have searched high and low to find a comparable recipe and figure out how they are made . Thus far, success has been elusive. The gingerbread man always stares back with his silently taunting grin. My thoughts then turned to the other gingerbread man who runs and runs and fast as he can, sassily tormenting those who want to eat him along the way. It turns out the tale of the gingerbread man is part of a genre of folklore about goodies gone wild.
Believe it or not, there is a classification system for the stories that we usually hear at bedtime, all neatly grouped and numbered based on their shared motifs. Folklore can be organized into animal tales, fairy tales, religious tales and so on. Of special interest—at least for this post—are the stories in group AT 2025, or more colloquially, ”The Fleeing Pancake” stories. No matter what part of the world you’re in, the basic ingredients of the story remain the same: a baked good pops out of the oven, runs or rolls away and escapes a series of pursuers before being eaten. What changes—and what makes this story fun to look at across different cultures—is how the details are changed. In European versions of the story, it’s a pancake—or sometimes a cornmeal johnny-cake or a bunnock, a small cake of oatmeal and treacle—that lifts itself out of a frying pan and goes on a spree. In some German tellings it willingly offers itself to two hungry children. In Norway, the pancake is ultimately consumed by a pig, and in other places it’s a fox. Every time the pancake encounters a hungry character, he mockingly lists all of the others who unsuccessfully tried to scarf him down; in Russian versions the pancake’s boasting is in verses meant to be sung by the storyteller.
The American variation of the story, “The Gingerbread Boy,” was first printed in the May 1875 issue of St. Nicholas magazine, the landmark children’s literary journal. Before that, the story seems to have belonged exclusively to oral storytelling traditions. “‘The Gingerbread Boy’ is not strictly original,” the unnamed author explained. “A servant girl from Maine told it to my children. It interested them so much that I thought it worth preserving. I asked where she found it and she said an old lady told it to her in her childhood.” (Though I have to admit, as fun as it was seeing how the story originally appeared, I missed the “Run, run as fast as you can/ You can’t catch me I’m the gingerbread man” chant I remember from how the story was told in my childhood.)
It’s also a story that has been re-imagined by others. Author L. Frank Baum, best remembered for writing The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, used the folktale as inspiration for his children’s fantasy novel John Dough and the Cherub. In this story a baker uses a magical life-giving elixir in his batter for a life-sized gingerbread man who sets out to explore the world—and is pursued by a villainous character intent on eating him so that he might enjoy the benefits of the magic potion by proxy and live forever. The Stinky Cheese Man has a little humanoid mass of smelly cheese running around town with no one wanting to follow him on account of his odor. In The Runaway Latkes, the potato pancakes traditionally served during Hannukah decide to make a bit of trouble.
For those interested in reading other takes on the gingerbread man, the University of Pittsburgh has an online collection of tales from all over the world. Tell us about your favorite spin on the story in the comments section. And if you are traveling through Richmond, Virginia during the holiday season, find a Ukrop’s bakery for one of their gingerbread men. I’ve yet to have one escape my grasp.