St Nicholas has come to our house for about 20 years, always on the morning of his feast day, December 6. Before that, he came to my parents house, even in the communist times – then, it was quite a treat to find oranges and bananas in our boots which had been nicely polished and placed by the door the previous evening. Chocolate was rare, candies even more so. My mom baked cakes but not gingerbread.
I learned though, the gingerbread craft, I taught myself. After my first one was born, I came across a magazine which had what looked like a good recipe, along with instructions on how to make a gingerbread house. The first was rather simple and it managed to produce some sort of effect.
The many others which followed were variations on the theme during the years our first batch of kids – as we like to call them affectionately – were small enough to believe the old saint brought the treat. And then I stopped making the house, and only baked gingerbread cookies. The dough though I’ve made every year since December 2000.
When the daughter of the second batch arrived, the older children said: so you’re gonna do a house again, right? Nooo, I groaned, too complicated. What? – they said – there’s no way you’re going to deprive our sis of the experience! So I was forced back into the game somewhat.
And then I got mad. Well, to put it mildly, it wasn’t the best time of my life – in order to fight depression, I took up watercolour and drawing again, learned relaxation techniques, and generally started to take care of myself, more or less. The afore-mentioned madness was specifically about starting to make gingerbread models of actual architectural buildings. A few years ago I did a small development of three one-and-a-half story houses, as a memento of managing to finish my doctoral thesis on Canadian postwar housing. Another year I chose the Vanna Venturi house – now that was quite ridiculous, it took me ages to make. Last year, I did row housing in Amsterdam, since we had visited the city the previous year and absolutely loved it.
And this year, it is a “Painted Lady” of the San Francisco, CA. The first batch had accompanied me on a West coast tour in August and I had many photos to choose from. But before I load the finished look, allow me to explain the process.
I start with making scaled sketches of the facades. This time when I cut them to assemble into a rough model, I realized the house would possibly be too big for the amount of dough I had, so I scaled the facades down on my photocopier.
I cut the papers and laid them into the baking trays to figure out how they’d fit – efficiency is key, trust me on this. Then I rolled the dough directly onto the parchment paper (outside the tray, duh…), placed the papers on top and cut on the perimeter of each shape.
Not a good idea to cut the openings (windows, doors) as during baking the dough puffs up a bit and, if completely cut, the holes would become smaller. Mark them with the knife before baking, so they show when the pieces are taken out of the oven. Work quickly to cut the openings and remove shortly after baking, while gingerbread is still warm – as soon as it cools down, it becomes very hard and breaks easily.
Now the fun part: decorate pieces! Get out all the hundreds and thousands and stick them with a “glue” made of icing sugar and lemon juice. Not only terrribly sturdy, but also gives gingerbread a very yummy final taste.
Perform a bit of archaeological work and dig the contour of the house in the gingerbread base, so the walls would be stuck into it and will thus have more stability when glued.
And… voila! Finished re-creation of an architectural heritage piece.
That was two days ago.
This morning: back to square one 17 years later. The baby in the first photo is all grown up and shows that photo to the present “baby” of the family. As for the house… you must know that earthquakes are quite likely in the San Francisco bay area. Well, today was one of those days, damaged heritage.
Tradition is good. Tradition grounds you. It inspires in the good days, it comforts in the down times. Tradition is the stone upon which kids are raised to believe that miracles do happen, even when you are likely to stop believing because, well, it’s hard in a what-you-see-is-what-you-get world. Tradition is about passing on skills, loving your folks and land, cherish your good memories. Tradition is about the important stuff in life.
Tradition is good. Make yourself at least one if you don’t have it – and start now!