‘Royal Icing’ Cements Friendships

Story by Jane Barnes
The tradition of Gingerbread House building and sharing with friends was not invented by friends Carolyn McLellan, Jane McGregor and Jane Barnes.
“We are simply the continuation of a long line of Gingerbread peddlers,” said Barnes. Records from St. Bartholomew’s Fair in London in 1614 show figures of animals, people, and the Saint himself garbed in gold — perhaps icing — being produced in gingerbread, she added.
Peddlers on the streets carried baskets of ginger cookies cut in fanciful shapes and cried out, “Buy any Gingerbread! Gilt Gingerbread!”
Traditionally, ginger had a preserving quality that was highly prized before refrigeration for caravans, armies going into battle, and long voyages on board ships. In the Middle Ages, the “hot and dry” ginger was thought to counteract an imbalance among the “four humors” that in Medieval medicine, were supposed to control a person’s health and temperament. William Shakespeare (1564-1616,) offered his opinion in Love’s Labours Lost, “An I had but one penny in the world, thou should’st have it to buy gingerbread.” There’s a perfect gift solution.
The personal approach to building a Gingerbread House (someone has to be in charge of the grand idea and pattern-making,) contrasts sharply with the desire to mingle and share it with a crowd.
However, the two have evolved in the last 30 years into one tradition, as my friends and I have continued to invite little ones to a Gingerbread Open House for Children just for the smiles we receive.

To hear the giggling and see wide- eyed wonder at the display of assembled gingerbread and candies fashioned into castles, chalets, Victorians (yes, Gingerbread Victorian homes,) barns, creches, and historical replicas is a gift we receive each year.

In Hansel and Gretel, someone built the edible house and the hungry children broke off bites. Fortunately, gingerbread has those preserving qualities, however it is vulnerable to humid or very damp conditions such as rainy seasons or a trip to Seattle at Christmas. I found that out by taking a house to Seattle on a plane, and watching it slump and fall apart over the next day or two. This, we know can be avoided by icing the backs of all pieces.

Other fun things to know about construction are that it takes a lion’s share of time. But what are traditions to do if we don’t feed on them, swallow them whole-heartedly and then share them with the “cubs.”

For me, a Gingerbread creation, from scratch, takes a minimum of three days. Day one is mulling over desiqns, making patterns, finding bases, deciding on scale. Day two is mixing the 12 cups flour recipe, cutting from paper patterns, baking, re-cutting, beveling corners, and icing backs of all pieces. Day three is assembling and beginning decorating with Royal Icing and candies (or ending if time runs out.)

The first houses my son’s playgroup friends (age two at the time) and their Moms and I made were group projects, designed to encourage and not intimidate. The point was to structure a fine craft with our children to enjoy together.

Now they free-form houses for fun from whatever corner or the world they find themselves. Son, Chris and wife, Stephanie are building traditions in Zurich, Switzerland, where they live, and Carolyn’s son, Aaron is enjoying Portland as a lawyer, as Jane McGregor’s three explore New York, Washington, DC; and Massachusetts.

Our tradition has snowballed and we find ourselves saying, “yes” when asked if we plan to continue each year, even 30 years later! Only an Ogre could enjoy the crest-fallen look on the inquirer’s face if we were to utter the word, “no.”

And so each year new houses spring from the archives of our minds. They celebrate a rich diversity as the children’s worlds expand. The 2010 creations included a Taj Mahal, by Jane McGregor’s children, four totally unique interpretations of the same “kit” house by Carolyn’s grandchildren, and my traditional Tibetan home, inspired by a trip that included our son and his wife.

The final decision is to “preserve” or to “smash and eat” the houses. They are amazingly delicious. However, I have had very good luck at preserving them using a few moth crystals or lavender sachets (do not eat these homes,) and storing them in sealed plastic bags in a dark place.

I always bake Gingerbread people and offer the trimmings of eaves to the hungry Hansels and Gretels. There is great fun in taking a hammer (covered with a plastic bag) and knocking a house apart to eat. The two I have done in 30 years have been memorable, as Chris could not believe we were going to let he and friends hack away at it.

They found the icing to be as hard as cement and they had to put real muscle to it. But what fun!

Our tradition has been the Open House for Children, and the sharing of ideas. A Gingerbread Album preserves the pictures of houses and friends, and the children are thrilled to see themselves in the “official” Album from parties past.

Building Gingerbread with friends can also cement friendships, as we Moms have found. Traditions that bring us together into one shared time-honored way add the spice to life. Share a little nibble with your “Hansels and Gretels”, and be transported.

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