Gingerbread Houses

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(HOST) This week VPR commentators are serving up some “Very Vermont Food”. Today commentator Marialisa Calta builds a Gingerbread House.

(CALTA) The neurologist Oliver Sachs wrote, “Nostalgia is about a fantasy that never takes place.” And never is nostalgia more at work than at the holidays. In the Christmas of our dream childhoods there is a Lionel train chugging round the tree, a new pony out back and an elaborate gingerbread house on the table.

But we’re adults now. We know the train will lose its fascination and the pony will be work. But the gingerbread house… Ah! That, we think, we can do.

This is the only explanation I can offer for the fact that, at Christmastime, otherwise sane adults take on the construction of a miniature three-story Victorian, complete with gables and cupola, using cookie dough as their medium. For their helpers, they choose small, sugar-crazed children.

Okay, I admit it. I succumbed about 16 years ago, when my elder daughter was nearly three. My first attempt was a real Hansel & Gretel extravaganza featured in a magazine. It had spun-sugar windows and a wrap-around porch. It had windowboxes. What a mother-daughter project, I thought, then spent several days neglecting my daughter while I cut out templates and baked inedible dough.

Hannah – until then a relative stranger to the joys of refined sugar – took one look at the candy I had stockpiled for decorations and dug in, finally running laps around the kitchen until she collapsed. I persevered.

The pieces didn’t exactly fit together, but I found that by using huge globs of icing I could get the sides to stand up. The roof – weighted with gumdrops and candy hearts – kept sliding off. I downsized: forget the cupola, the porch and the fanlight. Goodbye window boxes.

It was late at night when I admitted defeat. Royal icing had hardened on my eyebrows, and jujubes were stuck in my hair. I hauled the sagging edifice out to the trash and spent the rest of the holiday scraping the cabinets.

Of course, not everyone fails so spectacularly. Several years ago, I helped judge the Vermont Folklife Center’s annual gingerbread house contest, and still suffer pangs of envy over a giant gingerbread shoe – the one that the old women who had so many children lived in – complete with laces made of string licorice. This year, contestants have created an Eiffel Tower, a space station, a Barrio church and Moscow’s onion-domed St. Basil’s Cathedral.

It shows that dreams…especially Christmas dreams…die hard. Fortunately, I found the answer to mine in a wonderful cookbook called The Christmas Kitchen, written by Lorraine Bodger. The recipe is for miniature houses. The sides stand up. The roofs don’t slide off. They are actually fun to make, and my daughters and I have been making them for at least a dozen years. My youngest and I now wait for her older sister to come home from college before we start. It’s a tradition.

And it pleases me to think that when they are older, and getting nostalgic at the holidays, they can think of a fantasy that did happen. They’ll have to work on the pony.

I’m Marialisa Calta of Calais.

Marialisa Calta is a freelance writer and cookbook author. Tomorrow morning, Ruth Page serves up Vermont Turkey, complete with homegrown vegetables, cornbread dressing and other family favorites.

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