EAST LIVERPOOL — Some families spend time together during the Christmas season baking cookies, driving around viewing light displays or making snowmen. My family holds a fierce gingerbread house competition.
The competition actually starts as soon as someone announces we are having the semi-annual event, when we all start planning what we want to use to decorate our houses and who is going to team up.
This year, grandson Kaydon declared he was going to be on my team because he said his mom stinks at decorating gingerbread houses (his brother Casey and I won second place the last time with our farm, losing out to my brother’s phenomenal rendition of a backyard barbecue that had a working fire pit and grill, all made of edible materials).
Every shopping trip after the date is announced is a potential source of materials, but since those trips usually entail being with one of my sisters, secrecy is of utmost importance.
“So, what are you looking at?” my sister Butch inquires as she walks up behind me while I’m gazing upon a shelf filled with tiny candy lights, icicles, reindeer, trees and other goodies.
“Nothing,” I almost shout while quickly sliding tubes of icing with writing tips into my shopping cart, along with a package of tiny icicles and another of colorful bulbs, acting as guilty as though I were buying copies of Playgirl.
In her best professional baker’s voice, Butch asks, “You aren’t buying PREPARED icing? You know, you can make that a lot cheaper and just cut the corner off a plastic bag to write with it.”
Well, some of us don’t make baked goods for a living like you, missy, I think, hiding my contraband out of sight under some other items.
The only hard and fast rule of our competition is that only one item in our entire display can be inedible, so it’s no easy feat finding food items to turn our pre-made gingerbread houses into works of art.
For my brother’s aforementioned backyard barbecue, for instance, he thought outside the box and instead of using sugary accents, used such things as raw potato sticks as “firewood,” a hollowed-out cucumber to design a “cooler,” dried parsley for “grass,” bouillon cubes for fire pit “stones” and cauliflower bunches for “bushes,” among other innovative ideas.
This year, some of the more interesting items used included cooked bacon strips by my niece and her friend as the roof of their log cabin ski lodge, with the logs made from pretzel sticks and the ski slope made from Twinkies piled into a hillside and covered with snowy white icing, complete with tiny bear crackers traversing down the slope.
“Shhhh!” they told me as I took a look early in the design phase and said, “That looks like a ski slope.”
There’s no sharing of ideas or supplies once the competition begins.
Coconut always makes great “snow,” but this year I got the bright idea of using mashed potato flakes, not realizing the homestyle butter ones I bought just might be a bit off-colored due to the butter content.
The term, “don’t eat the yellow snow” could have been penned for my display.
Although some gingerbread houses are already assembled in the box, others are not, and I learned the hard way the recommendation to assemble our houses BEFORE the contest was a good one.
Having run out of time that day, I didn’t get to even open my box until the night of the competition and was stunned when what came out was one piece of misshapen gingerbread with absolutely no resemblance to a house, or even pieces of a house.
My niece Marie opened hers to find most of the pieces cracked in half, and although I tried to salvage both of ours by combining them into one good house, it was not to be. My son saved the day by running to Calcutta and buying me another house.
Unfortunately, the more I tried to get the pieces to stick with icing, the more the roof slid off or the walls collapsed. Finally, Kaydon abandoned me for his mother’s team, leaving me on my own to come up with something worth entering.
I joked I was going to make a “land bank” house that had been demolished but managed to get mine to stick together at the last moment. With the clock ticking, I began throwing pretzel “logs” on with icing, black licorice pieces on for “shingles,” and using my secret icing tubes to draw green wreaths on the windows.
Complemented by my yellow mashed potato “snow,” a marshmallow snowman whose eyeball fell off and whose icing kept running so he looked as though he had melted, and my pieces of cracked gingerbread, my “Crack House” was finally finished.
It looked like a 3-year-old designed it. The judge said, “You’ve been covering police too long,” when they saw the “Crack House” title.
All in all, we had some cool entries this year, with my daughter-in-law Patty’s team (composed of my son Mike, grandsons Casey and Kaydon and friend Lyv) coming up with a colorful house and train, my sister Toni and her daughter Madison devising a cool train track out of pretzels, my niece Kris and her son Dalton and his friend Tatiana designing a traditional sweets-laden house, my other sister, Butch using her hand-made icing for a marshmallow-and-fondant-covered house and my nephew Howdy and his wife Rachel complimenting theirs with ninja fighters, but ultimately the judges, Darlene and Mike Rolya, took about one minute to choose the ski lodge made by my niece Haydon and her friend Kelsey as the winner. We all agreed it was the best.
Their prize: Getting to write their names on the perpetual trophy – a big piece of fake candy.
There’s always next year.