Until December 1997 gingerbread houses had brought back memories of the Grimms story Hansel and Gretel. It would then not be a large leap to remember seeing Humperdinck’s opera of the same name but I had never thought of having gingerbread houses as decorative accessories.
Living in suburban Houston, my first exposure to the ‘burbs, changed that. I had been told in no uncertain terms by the leader of the local housing association, a forceful woman with a toothy smile and blonde bouncing hair, that the holiday theme for our street was to be ‘gingerbread houses’. After further explanation I understood our house, which was on a corner lot, was expected to come up trumps if we, the street, were to have any hope of beating Sugar Hill Court, the street adjacent to ours, that year. It was a local gingerbread decoration derby.
I knew my normally very amenable husband would baulk at such an orchestrated display of community spirit. I was right. “Think how disappointed the kids’d be if we were the only house on the street that did not take part in the neighbourhood fun. It’s their first American Christmas,” I said to my reluctant spouse, having no qualms about using our children as my line of defence. “Oh, and it needs to be done by next Saturday,” I added. He built a magnificent gingerbread house, complete with interior lighting, that we all helped paint. He only grumbled a little.
Since then I have come to accept ‘gingerbread’ as part of the American Christmas dream and consider myself quite an expert. For instance, did you know Gregory of Nicopolis, an Armenian monk is credited with introducing gingerbread to Europe in 992? For seven years he taught the French the art of baking the spicy slabs with it finally reaching Market Drayton, in Shropshire, in the 17th Century via Germany and Sweden. Though gingerbread is associated with Bonfire Night in Britain rather than Christmas, as it is here in the States.
And so yesterday after breakfast at our regular Saturday haunt, Macondos, I was delighted to stumble into the 2nd Annual Gingerbread Build Off organised by AIA Houston (American Institute of Architecture), as we wandered around Market Square, a small park in Downtown Houston newly, and beautifully, revamped.
It was abuzz with men and women in white pinnies clustered around tables studying blueprints, measuring slabs of gingerbread and far too busy to talk to a curious bystander. The man in charge, leaning against a lamp post sipping from a styrofoam cup of coffee, was pointed out to me by a harassed woman wielding a metal ruler and knife, and with hair scraped back in a business-like bun. He, a thirty-something architect with a neat goatee and bottle-top glasses, had five hours in which to hover over the builders ensuring fair play was adopted by all and so was happy to chat.
I learnt five pinnies were available for each team, some of which were made up of earnest young architects eager to show their model-making prowess. But it was on the whole an eclectic group of gingerbread devotees – designers, colleagues, students, artists, spouses. Each team was given four 8”x11” gingerbread sheets, graham crackers, gumdrops, peppermint candies, a small amount of icing and toothpicks. Teams were able to supplement their supplies but only if all materials were edible. Plans were permitted but no prior construction could be brought to the tables. They were building for one of eight prizes, glass gingerbread men, with the judging to be held at three in the afternoon.
Now much as I enjoyed watching their obvious expertise I did have other plans for the day. Christmas is coming, windows to be washed, lights to be put up, presents wrapped and an important football game to watch so we went home. But jingling around in my head along with “nick, nick, nick” of the lyrics from the opera, written by Humperdinck’s sister for her children was the “I wonder who’ll win?” line.
The niggle wouldn’t go away so after clicking the final branch into place on our Christmas tree I wandered back to Market Square. The pinnies were still on and although the measuring and slicing had finished and wine and beer had replaced coffee and water, the intensity of the group was still buzzing, along with the bees happy to dip into the icing starting to trickle down walls or suck on gum drops.
Some of the sweet buildings were amazing. One, a cathedral complete with stain glass window made from boiled lollies, lit by a candle (allowed by the rules but just for the judging period), glowed with piety. A sugar rabbit, white and behatted, waited patiently outside an Alice-in-Wonderland-style house on another table. Another supported a replica of the San Jacinto monument topped by the star of Texas, a nod to the state’s history. Yet another was a built-to-scale gingerbread copy of the CCTV HQ in Beijing; a gingerbread dragon dominated another table hovering over a row of traditional gingerbread houses. Very like the one my husband built thirteen years ago for our first American Christmas.
It made me think I really should’ve got tickets for Houston’s Grand Opera rendition of Hansel and Gretel earlier this year, gingerbread is obviously an ongoing part of my life.
Oh yes, and our street won!