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Gingerbread nostalgia

(article, Sara Perry)

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The word “gingerbread” conjures up different images for everyone, from spicy gingerbread men all dressed up with raisin eyes and frosted trousers to fragrant, molasses-laden cake served warm from the oven with softly whipped cream.

I think of Mr. and Mrs. Neuman’s gingerbread houses.

Every year, on the Friday after Thanksgiving, our next-door neighbors, the Neumans, invited my brother and me to help them build a gingerbread house. On dark fall evenings leading up to the big day, I’d see Mr. Neuman’s studio light shining in my window, and I suspected he was drawing up intricate plans for that year’s house.

[%image reference-image float=right width=400 credit="Photo © Culinate" caption="Fresh gingerbread with powdered sugar is a wintertime treat."]

Mr. Neuman looked a lot like Father Christmas, minus the beard and 40 pounds. He had been an artist and cabinetmaker in his native Germany, but when I knew him — in Los Angeles in the 1950s — he designed passenger planes. And gingerbread houses.

Mrs. Neuman was the kind of grandmotherly woman you read about in fairy tales. In my memory, she’s always in a flower-print apron, her gray hair in a bun at the back of her neck, and she’s always in the kitchen opening the oven door or lifting the lid off her Dutch oven to taste its contents with a deep wooden spoon. During the holidays, her whole house smelled of cinnamon and ginger.

On assembly day, it was Mrs. Neuman’s job to make the dough, cut out the patterns, and bake the gingerbread pieces. I pitched in by measuring the spices she kept in red tins at the back of her pantry, and my brother, Mark, helped her roll out the dough. Every year we built the gingerbread house on a carved wooden tray Mr. Neuman had made his wife as a wedding present.


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We made many houses with the Neumans. My favorite was the one that looked like a Hansel-and-Gretel cottage. My brother liked the log cabin. Mrs. Neuman loved the house that looked like Bing Crosby’s mansion in Beverly Hills, complete with a pool made of aqua sheet gelatin.

The fact that Mark and I were still full from the previous night’s turkey and pumpkin pie didn’t stop us from enjoying the special hard candies Mrs. Neuman’s sister sent from Nuremberg. We’d put dots of icing on the backs of the ones we didn’t eat and stick them on as shingles.

I don’t remember what happened to all those gingerbread houses, or when we stopped making them together, but like many sweet memories, I still savor them. I learned later on that Nuremberg is the home of the German gingerbread man; for more than 600 years, Bavarian bakers have created gingerbread people and houses. No wonder the Neumans loved this tradition.

In my childhood, gingerbread was a holiday treat, and its history stretched back no further than last year’s gingerbread house. Today, I like gingerbread in all kinds of recipes, from breakfast cakes to pudding, any time of day or any season of the year.

p(bio). Sara Perry is a writer and cookbook author; her next book, [%bookLink code=0811860892 "Deep Dark Chocolate"], will be out in 2008. This article was adapted by the author from her book [%bookLink code=0811816133 "Great Gingerbread"].

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