from the calendar

31st Gingerbread Gallery creates a tiny village made of gingerbread

Kelly O'Neill | Staff Illustrator

The name gingerbread house actually started being used to describe the Victorian houses they are modeled after.

The Erie Canal Museum in downtown Syracuse has brought a little village to life every year for the past 31 years. A brown castle with a drawbridge stands in a corner and little homes circle the town. A snowman stands guard in a snow-capped garden and a dog peeks out of a kennel in another.

What makes this village special is that it is completely edible.

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Courtesy of the Erie Canal Museum

The museum is bringing its annual Gingerbread Gallery to Syracuse for the winter season. Gingerbread creations donated by the community will be open for the public to view until Jan. 9.

The six-week exhibit will be displayed in a mock Victorian storefront area, said Natalie Stetson, the museum’s executive director.

The gingerbread creations are enclosed in glass and placed in painted storefronts. The Victorian style is a deliberate choice and dates back to the first gingerbread gallery in 1985.

“Creating a cute little storefront to display the gingerbread houses in was a thematic but also aesthetic choice,” Stetson explained. “It’s a more interesting way to see them, rather than just seeing them sitting on tables.”

The Gingerbread gallery is teeming with visitors every year, Stetson said, and between 5,000 and 6,000 guests tour the museum in the six weeks.

Historic themes are also a big part of the gallery, some closer to Syracuse University — there are a couple of Carrier Dome-based models.

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Courtesy of the Erie Canal Museum

The gingerbread creations are submitted categorically for competition. Professional confectioners enter for a cash prize, and the youth, family and senior categories receive ribbons.

Since the gallery houses the gingerbread creations for six weeks, they can’t be eaten. However, the creators have their share of fun in the actual process of building a house, said Jane Verostek, State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry librarian and gingerbread house creator.

“Every year, we have a huge discussion on whether to do one or two gingerbread houses,” she said.

Verostek began donating gingerbread houses after she built them with her two daughters, then 2 and 4 years old. Now, six years later, her daughters still share her enthusiasm as November comes, albeit for different reasons.

“When I asked them why they liked it, the younger one said she gets to eat the candy and frosting,” Verostek said. “But the elder one said she really liked to work on the actual design and building.”

The Verostek family sticks with the same gingerbread house theme: movies. This year, it is “Finding Dory.” They are considering a SpongeBob SquarePants theme for next year.

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Kiran Ramsey | Digital Design Editor

While the gingerbread gallery is a festive display, the museum draws the exhibit further back into the history of the Erie Canal itself and the museum that stands today. Before the Erie and Oswego canals were built, Syracuse was a tiny hamlet of 250 residents, Stetson said.

After the construction of the Erie Canal in 1825 and the Weighlock Building in 1849, money flowed into Syracuse, and with it came the construction of large intricate houses with teeming colors and wood carvings.

“The houses that were made out of gingerbread were intricate, beautiful, little miniature houses,” she said. “In actual architecture, these fancy houses started to be called, colloquially, gingerbread houses.”

This Syracuse trivia is part of a story Stetson narrates to kindergarteners when they visit the museum for gingerbread house workshops. Both parents and children enjoy the workshops so much that the museum hosts an adults-only event.

The museum puts on a gingerbread house “build and sip,” which is their own take on a “paint and sip” event, Stetson said.

“The adults have so much fun making the gingerbread houses with the kids, so we thought, ‘Why not do a special event just for them in the evening with wine?’” she said.

This year’s gingerbread “build and sip” event is on Dec. 14.

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Courtesy of the Erie Canal Museum

For college students, the attraction might even be twofold — Verostek suggested that the gingerbread gallery could be a great night for a date and, as the exhibit is a strong Syracuse tradition, could be an antidote to students missing family traditions.

“I remember always making gingerbread houses and it’d be nice to go back and have a reminder of my childhood,” said Nicole Mitchell, a junior information management and technology major. “The last time I made one was maybe 10 years ago.”

Stetson agreed about the festive appeal.

“It’s a fun way to get into the holiday spirit,” she said. “December’s coming — it’s time to be cheery.”

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