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A History of Confectionary Construction

Almost everyone harbors fond memories of piping royal icing smiles onto little gingerbread men and women or shaking a powdered sugar blizzard over their own tiny gingerbread house. Whether it’s served hard or soft, warm or cold, iced or plain, gingerbread is an integral part of most holiday traditions. While gingerbread houses are a great excuse to stock up on candy and play with your food, the tradition of baking gingerbread stretches from the present to some of the first colonists setting foot in the Americas.

In 1796, citizens of the newly minted United States of America cracked open the first all-American cookbook, American Cookery by Amelia Simmons. Within its pages, you could find no less than three distinct recipes for gingerbread. In fact, Mary Ball Washington, the mother of President George Washington, favored the softer variety of gingerbread and reportedly baked it for the Marquis de Lafayette during his visit to Fredericksburg, Virginia. From that point on,  the soft sweet iteration was known as Gingerbread Lafayette, and the recipe passed from Washington to Washington. So, it may not come as a surprise that PBS reports gingerbread cookies “were sometimes used to sway Virginia voters to favor one candidate over another.” 

The tradition of shaping gingerbread into houses also dates back to the early Colonists, specifically stemming from the Brothers Grimm Hansel and Gretel story published in Germany in the 1600s. When the first European settlers came to America they brought with them a love for gingerbread constructions, and the white decorations of colonial houses are often referred to as “gingerbread trim,” according to This Old House. In the following years, the United States developed a healthy obsession with gingerbread houses, and across the country, thousands of Americans participated in gingerbread building competitions.

In Asheville, North Carolina, The Omni Grove Park Inn has hosted a gingerbread house competition since the early 90s. One of the oldest and most celebrated gingerbread builders competitions in America, this contest draws hundreds of applicants all vying for a prize of over $25,000. Evansville, Indiana, hosts over 35 teams with a total of 1,000 participants in a gingerbread house competition almost every year. The Aurora Gingerbread House Fundraiser raises money to fight homelessness in the Evansville community. By building gingerbread houses, these teams of amateur bakers, professional chefs, and pastry artists, help build homes for people with nowhere to call home.

It’s commonly known that everything is bigger in Texas, and that might be part of the reason Texans are responsible for constructing the largest gingerbread house in the world. The people of Bryan, Texas, came together to build a 39,201.8 cubic-feet-sized gingerbread house. The tasty home required  7,200 lbs of flour; 1,800 lbs of butter; 7,200 eggs; 3,000 lbs of brown sugar; and 22,304 pieces of candy, according to Today. The gingerbread project was a collaborative effort between the people of Bryan and Texas A&M to raise money for a trauma program at the nearby St. Joseph Health system

The biggest gingerbread village is also located in the United States. A year-round labor of love for chef Jon Lovitch, this edible town weighs over three tons. GingerBread Lane travels across the country on display, and Lovitch spends all year crafting new buildings, streets, and neighborhood additions in his small New York Apartment. “I’m a chef by trade and a food purist, so I don’t believe in using ingredients that are inedible,” Lovitch told Smithsonian. “Sure, it would be much easier to build if I used Styrofoam and glue, but Guinness mandates it’s built in such a way, and that’s the same way I’ve always done it.” The construction is always growing and takes over 1,500 hours to complete, but the joy it spreads is well worth it.

My Gingerbread House. Photo Courtesy of Clayton Crawford

Even Presidents of the United States enjoy a good gingerbread house. Historically, the Whitehouse Pastry Chef would construct traditional A-frame gingerbread houses for display in the White House. However, in the ’90s, the Pastry Chef reconstructed the childhood homes of the sitting President and First Lady. Most recently, a gingerbread White House has adorned the mantle of the Executive Manor. Often covered in hundreds of pounds of white chocolate, this holiday treat is a testament to how far the obsession with candy creations have become over the years. While the concept of the Gingerbread House wasn’t born in America, the tradition of Gingerbread Houses bringing people together is alive and well in homes across the nation.

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