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Gingerbread makes home, (really) sweet home

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Nov. 30, 2008 - Surrounded by soaring foreclosures, falling interest rates and crashing markets, one house stands recession proof through the holidays: The gingerbread house.

Made with a tasty mortar and inspired by the dreams of two German brothers, whose stories of Hansel and Gretel brought the fantasy of an edible abode to life, the gingerbread house is a tradition that has weathered the ages and continues to delight.

Belleville has been in the forefront of demonstrating the renewed popularity and interest in the craft of making gingerbread houses. For the past 19 years, the town with a rich German heritage has invited gingerbread house architects of all skill levels to participate in its festive “Gingerbread Walk” competition. Every holiday season, cozy Main Street shops display a variety of homespun to professionally mastered creations. The houses will be in place until Jan. 5.

“This year, we had 85 entries,” says Angela Massey, executive director of Belleville Main Street. “Last year, it was 70. We’re excited about the number of entries. We almost didn’t have enough storefronts for them.”

Checking out the setup as the stores were receiving the new gingerbread houses, we spied such elaborate creations as a sleek, silver-and-white-adorned gingerbread replica of the Taj Mahal, and a brilliant rainbow reverie depicting the characters from “The Wizard of Oz.” Dorothy and her friends earned best in show.

Children’s creations included “Revenge of the Gingerbread Man” and “The City Museum.”

The amusement on the faces of the people viewing the houses delights Massey as she makes her daily rounds down the newly street-scaped Main Street. The steadily growing number of people are from as far away as Springfield, IL, and Poplar Bluff, MO.

“They are so grateful to see something that has been such a long-standing tradition continue and start to flourish again in the midst of everything that’s going on in our country right now,” says Massey. “It’s refreshing to see that some things remain the same and grow ever stronger.”

Learning at Eckert's

One of the entries exemplifies a venue for many enduring St. Louis and Belleville family customs: a tasty model of the bustling Eckert’s Country Store.

“I haven’t seen it yet,” says Jill Eckert Tantillo, vice president of Eckert’s Inc. “It will be interesting to see what someone else thinks we look like.”

When the Gingerbread Walk began, Eckert’s Country Store, on the outskirts of Belleville, set up workshops to teach how to make gingerbread houses, which helped people with their entries. However, the Main Street entry date came earlier every year as the competition increased in scale and popularity. Now, the entry date no longer jibes with Eckert’s post-Thanksgiving workshop dates.

But the number of people seeking guidance on making gingerbread houses from Eckert’s continues to grow, and the operation has expanded to two days a week from one over four weekends.

“You don’t sign up, so people just kind of walk in. But we’ll plan on doing about a thousand houses,” Tantillo says. “I’m glad I’m not in charge of rolling!,” she adds with a laugh.

Eckert’s house kits are pre-rolled, cut and baked by Eckert’s bakers before visitors arrive. So the students just have to put together and adorn the creations with candies and treats.

“I really like the red hots because they are lightweight and small. Sometimes you try out different things on the house and they’re too heavy,” Tantillo says. “Candy canes are nice because you can put two together and make a heart, you can lay them down and they’re sleds, and people make them into light posts, so it’s a really versatile piece of candy. And the icing is always the key. You have to have good icing.”

Egg whites, dry weather and lots of whipping are vital elements of a good, sturdy icing, Tantillo explains.

Can't Make It to Eckert's?

It took Kelly Mann, the individual creator of the most comprehensive gingerbread house-making site on the web, lots of trial and error to find the right icing when she initially began making gingerbread houses when she was a teenager.

“I think I ran to the store probably five times to get more powdered sugar because everything I made was just too runny, and you needed five hands to hold the house up to keep it from falling apart,” Mann recalls, laughing. “It was a total disaster.”

Two and a half years ago, Mann, who had trouble finding a satisfactory gingerbread house-making website for her own use, decided to take on the endeavor and designed Gingerbread House Heaven (www.gingerbread-house-heaven.com). The site includes recipes, templates, links and pictures to help gingerbread creators to get started. She also offers a forum for people to ask questions about gingerbread making. Her one-time hobby has flourished into a passion.

“I can’t drive past a building or a house without picturing it made of gingerbread. You know: What could I make that siding out of?” says Mann lightheartedly. “I literally see the world through gingerbread glasses now. It makes life very interesting and fun.”

Although she’s been to many professional gingerbread house-making competitions and seen a vast number of intricately detailed and expertly spangled edible housing, Mann says that anyone can make a gingerbread house.

“The key things you need are patience and a sense of humor, because they might not always turn out how you expect,” explains Mann. “Don’t be too ambitious, plan on taking your time. If you’re just dying to decorate your house and it’s not yet dry, the icing hasn’t hardened, it’s not likely to work. As soon as you start pressing pieces onto the roof, the whole thing could collapse, and that’s pretty frustrating.”

Eat the Evidence

Gingerbread house making, Jill Eckert Tantillo says, should be a relatively relaxing activity for the family, so if disaster does hit your house, don’t worry.

“It’s all edible, so if all else fails, just eat it.”

Wouldn’t it be nice if all housing stories were this easy to swallow?

Solange Dechatres is a freelance writer.