By Maggy Howe. Photographs by David Prince.
With a long history in the New World and the Old, gingerroot is enmeshed in folklore, food, and healing.
Tingly on the tongue, pungent to the nose, ginger is most familiar to Americans as the spice responsible for the distinctive flavor of Christmas cookies and many Asian dishes. But gingerroot -- established in the New World as early as the 16th century -- has a remarkable medicinal history that is just as long and storied as its culinary one.
During the American Revolution, gingerbread was a staple of both British and American soldiers, as it would harden and keep for a year or longer. Colonists' apothecaries consisted largely of ginger. The fresh root would be grated, added to boiling water, and steeped for 15 minutes; this infusion was then strained and taken with honey as a cure-all for colds, bronchitis, cramps, and congestion. Teas made with ginger were sipped to relieve cold feet and hands or, when combined with other herbs, as a pick-me-up to alleviate fatigue. Gingerroot was also made into a digestive tonic. And a warm plaster or compress of powdered ginger -- often combined with whiskey -- was used to relieve pain.
Early in the 1900s, afternoon tea dances became the rage, and midday teas were accompanied by music and dance. Often a warming tea of ginger, cinnamon, orange slices, and chamomile was served, inspiring the prim and proper ladies to take on a different air while dancing the fox-trot. "Ginger is a stimulating herb," says Judy Griffin, author of Mother Nature's Herbal (Llewellyn Press; 1997; $19.95). "It always gets the blood flowing." Griffin says that ginger aids circulation, making you feel warm when nothing else seems to do the trick. "It warms you up from the inside," she says. "It opens your pores and allows you to sweat, moving the energy outward."
The herb was also the source of superstitions. Growing a ginger plant in the house by placing gingerroot in water, for example, was said to attract health and prosperity. Another myth suggested that ginger's warming effects be used to "warm up the heart": in other words, that ginger would make the people who eat it feel warmer and consequently more loving toward their neighbors.