War heroes can be found in unlikely places – even the kitchen – as a January picture book from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt attests. In Gingerbread for Liberty! How a German Baker Helped Win the American Revolution, Mara Rockliff profiles Christopher Ludwick, who was born in Hesse in 1720 and emigrated to Philadelphia, where he set up a bakeshop specializing in gingerbread and made sure that no one went hungry – even at his own expense. When war broke out, the big-hearted baker enrolled in Washington’s army and employed his culinary skills, both to feed colonial troops and to persuade British-hired German soldiers to defect to the patriots’ cause. Playfully riffing off the story, Vincent X. Kirsch’s illustrations feature characters that resemble gingerbread cookies – complete with icing-like flourishes.

Rockliff first came across Ludwick’s story in a 1964 magazine article focusing on food traditions of the Pennsylvania Dutch – or Deutsch, meaning German – which included several paragraphs about Ludwick. “That grabbed me right away,” she recalled, “since it combined fun stuff for kids – sneaky secret agent, gingerbread – with fun historical stuff for parents and teachers. Also, I live in a very German part of Pennsylvania, and my daughter has Hessian ancestors on her father’s side, so the topic had special interest to me.”

When the author began researching Ludwick’s life, she realized how unsung this hero is. “The most recent sources I discovered were two articles published in the 1950s,” she said. “In fact, there was a chapter on him in a book called The Romance of Forgotten Men – and that book was from 1928! It turned out that pretty much everything anyone knows about Ludwick comes from a short biography first published in 1801, the year he died, by his friend Dr. Benjamin Rush, a signer of the Declaration of Independence.”

A self-described “research geek,” Rockliff noted that, in addition to exploring Ludwick’s story, “I had lots of fun digging into the history of gingerbread and other details. At one point I actually had a dozen German history professors arguing about how a Hessian speaker in 1776 would have translated the words ‘revolution,’ ‘liberty,’ and ‘independence.’ ”

Putting a Sweet Spin on History

Kirsch incorporated translations of those words into his watercolor art, the creation of which was a task uncannily suited to his tastes. Ludwick’s profession aside, it’s no surprise the artist gravitated toward a gingerbread-themed look for his illustrations, given his background as a visual food stylist with a concentration on gingerbread confections. From 1999–2003, and then again from 2010–2012, the artist worked as a visual merchandiser at Manhattan’s storied Dean & Deluca specialty foods shop, where he was responsible for designing and creating gingerbread houses and gingerbread ornaments to decorate the store and to sell at holiday time.

When executive editor Kate O’Sullivan, with whom Kirsch worked as illustrator of Jeri Chase Ferris’s Noah Webster and His Words (HMH, 2012), approached him about illustrating Gingerbread for Liberty!, the artist soon cooked up the idea of having his medium mimic the message, and using a gingerbread motif throughout the book. But one hurdle emerged immediately.

“I thought, ‘Oh, no, this predominately brown palette will be boring,’ ” said Kirsch. “So I realized I had to replicate the look of gingerbread cookies with different colors within the brown family palette. I bought a range of shaped gingerbread cookies so I could match the different colors as closely as possible – and could come up with watercolor layers to get the right subtlety and nuance.” The artist also used rubbelkrepp, a German rubber cement substance, to create the illustrations’ icing-like detail.

Though O’Sullivan knew of Kirsch’s affinity for cooking, that didn’t feed into her decision to ask if he’d be interested in illustrating Gingerbread for Liberty! “I have loved Vincent’s work ever since his first book, Natalie & Naughtily,” she explained. “There is so much wonderful detail packed into each illustration. And there was something about his decidedly whimsical approach that seemed like just the thing for Noah Webster. Once he showed me how passionate and dedicated he was to research and being historically accurate with his art, in addition to bringing the fun, I knew he would work magic with Christopher Ludwick, too.”

Rockliff, an avid baker, who observes that “baked goods have a funny way of creeping into every book I write” (she even includes a recipe for gingerbread cookies on this book’s endpapers), was pleased with Kirsch’s choice of illustration style. “At first, I was almost a little disappointed, because I really loved his art for Noah Webster and I’d been picturing my story illustrated in that style,” she admitted. “But, of course, this gingerbread-cookie themed images are perfect for Gingerbread for Liberty! and I’m delighted with the final art.”

Reflecting on the relevance of Ludwick’s story today, the author pointed to the intrepid patriot’s German roots. “When people talk about immigration today, I think it’s very relevant to know that one of our nation’s first heroes was an immigrant who used his language skills to help us win the Revolutionary War,” she said. “Americans laughed at the baker’s ‘funny’ English, but bilingualism turned out to be his superpower. Because Ludwick spoke the same German dialect as the Hessian soldiers, he was able to convince them to switch allegiances, which is something even George Washington himself couldn’t do.”

Gingerbread for Liberty! How a German Baker Helped Win the American Revolution by Mara Rockliff, illus. by Vincent X. Kirsch. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $16.99 Jan. 2015 ISBN 978-0-544-13001-2