Faith Gong: The gingerbread house
Like most pivotal events, it started with a simple question: “Mommy, are they doing the gingerbread houses again?”
By “they,” my daughter was referring to the Vermont Folklife Center in Middlebury, which has hosted the annual Gingerbread House Competition for the past 23 years. Individuals and families create gingerbread houses reflecting the year’s theme, and community members vote for their favorite entries. Usually, the houses are displayed at the Folklife Center, but for the past two years the competition has been virtual, with photos of entries available for viewing online.
Viewing the year’s gingerbread houses has become a favorite holiday tradition for our family: Every year my children look forward to seeing the amazing and beautiful things that people create out of edible materials. Every year, they say, “We should enter next year!” And every year, I have successfully deferred our actual involvement in creating a gingerbread house – until now.
The thing is, my children approach the holidays with a mob mentality: Everything has to happen FAST and it has to happen NOW. It takes them about 10 minutes to decorate our house and our Christmas tree in a frenzy of red ribbons, china figurines, and garland. When they are finished, the floor is littered with box lids, shredded tissue paper, and broken glass. They decorate Christmas cookies in the same way: When they are finished, the kitchen table is covered with blobs of hardening cookie icing, and the kitchen floor is carpeted with sprinkles. The idea of them bringing this same impatient energy to a gingerbread house as part of a contest that was sure to raise the emotional temperature a few degrees was just too much.
“Oh, there’s so much going on this year,” I’d say, whenever my children started asking about gingerbread houses. “Maybe next year. Maybe when everyone’s a little bit older. I think we may have missed the deadline, anyway.”
My children missed seeing the gingerbread houses in person last year, so when they asked whether the Vermont Folklife Center would have an exhibit this year I went online to check.
“It’s a virtual competition again this year,” I told my 8- and 10-year-old daughters as they crowded around the computer screen.
“We should enter!” they said, on cue.
At that moment, making a gingerbread house seemed possible to me. The virtual aspect was nice: Rather than schlepping a fragile house across town, we’d just take photos of our finished product to submit online. The deadline was still a week away — tight, but we could make it if we worked a bit every day. What clinched it was the theme: “Favorite Children’s Books.” To say that our house is powered by children’s books is not an exaggeration.
We were in.
“Let’s do Julia’s House for Lost Creatures!” my daughters declared as soon as I gave the green light. It was an inspired choice. Ben Hatke’s charming picture book is about a girl named Julia who tires of living alone in her large, rattletrap house that travels on the back of a giant turtle. She hangs out a signboard advertising “Julia’s House for Lost Creatures,” and becomes a den mother to a motley crew of trolls, mermaids, gnomes, dragons, fairies, and other mythical beings. We all sighed for a moment, envisioning the gabled and turreted gingerbread house atop a candied turtle, with colorful magical creatures made from sugar cookies. Creative. Ambitious. Perfect.
My daughters dug out our copy of the book and got to work making a model of the house from cardstock, while I searched for gingerbread recipes on the internet. A grocery store run was made for supplies. We mixed up a large batch of gingerbread, and the girls cut the house pieces using their template. My husband provided a plywood base, upon which we assembled our turtle and frosted it with royal icing. We were halfway to the deadline as I proudly carried our materials to the guest room (safely away from destructive pets and two-year-old brother). Why did I ever think this would be too difficult for us? I wondered.
I found out the next night, when it was time to begin assembling the house.
The first issue was deciphering how to use the pastry bag to “pipe” royal icing between the gingerbread pieces. The pastry bag came with 12 decorating tips and something called a “coupler,” which was supposed to enable easy switching between tips. The problem was that I couldn’t figure out whether the coupler went inside or outside of the pastry bag, and where the tip fit in. There were, of course, no directions included.
“WHY WOULDN’T THEY INCLUDE DIRECTIONS?!?” I fumed.
My husband helpfully pulled up a YouTube video, in which a woman named something like “Cindy Lou,” wearing a bright yellow cardigan to match her spotless countertops, spent five minutes explaining — in a Minnie Mouse voice — how to rig up a pastry bag.
“I HAVE NO TIME FOR CINDY LOU!” I shouted as my daughters stared, wide-eyed.
In the end, we skipped the pastry bag altogether and attempted to slop the icing between the gingerbread with a knife. This was a mistake: The gingerbread, which had been cut a bit unevenly by small people, tipped every which way until, finally, all the walls fell down.
Throughout this ordeal, I was not at my best. Covered with powdered sugar and egg whites, I snapped at my children: “Don’t put the icing there, it’s dripping everywhere!” and “Will someone HOLD this wall UP for me?!?”
My 10-year-old suggested that we call it a day and “try again tomorrow, when we’re not so tired and grumpy.” (The “we” was diplomatic.)
“This is such a fun holiday tradition that’s really bringing our family together,” my husband deadpanned.
The next day, I decided to act like a grownup. I read the directions carefully on the gingerbread house recipe and learned about supporting the walls with soda cans for 30 minutes while the icing dried. I attempted to follow what I recalled of Cindy Lou’s instructional video and cut the pastry bag tip to fit the coupler. I cut it too big, so we had to slop icing on with knives again, but slow progress was made.
The day after that, I sent my husband to the store for disposable pastry bags. These came with directions. I followed the directions, which didn’t involve the coupler, and we were able to “pipe” the frosting on appropriately.
The real turning point came the day before the contest deadline, when I got out of the way and let my daughters take over: That was when the gingerbread house came together at last. They had some brilliant ideas, like supporting the walls internally with large pretzel sticks. They cut out sugar cookie creatures and mixed up beautiful colored icing to decorate them. They worked together — for the most part — peaceably.
Not for the first time, I was reminded that things usually go more smoothly when I let go.
After one week of sweat and countless bags of confectioner’s sugar, we had a gingerbread house. It was a little wobbly and rough around the edges, but it was my children’s creative interpretation of an ambitious vision, and they were proud of it.
“And this was just our first try!” they crowed. “Just wait until next year: It’ll be SO MUCH BETTER!”
Faith Gong has worked as an elementary school teacher, a freelance photographer, and a nonprofit director. She lives in Middlebury with her husband, five children, assorted chickens and ducks, one feisty cat, and one anxiety-prone labradoodle. In her “free time,” she writes for her blog, The Pickle Patch.
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