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Wednesday, Nov. 26, 2003 02:20 pm

Grace about town

Gingerbread mania

art644

For the past few weeks the house has been filled with the chaos of construction: clouds of dust, floor littered with debris, no room to set anything anywhere.

Powdered sugar dust, that is. Sticky floors, candy scattered hither and yon. We've been busy, Mom, my niece Mercedes and I, creating the perfect gingerbread house.

A gingerbread birdhouse, that is, for Memorial's Festival of Trees, taking place right now in the Orr Building at the State Fairgrounds. This is my second gingerbread encounter. Mom and Mercedes started the tradition three years ago, creating an enormous Miami beach hotel complete with palm trees made of breadsticks and green lasagna leaves. Next year was a vast round of Swiss cheese, with mice peeping out of the holes and a cat perched on top. I only saw photos of these marvels, though. I longed to take part, but thought I'd never get the chance.

Maybe that's the real reason I moved back to Springfield; subconsciously, the gingerbread was calling.

Last year, our construction was elaborate. In the Festival's Guidelines for the Gingerbread Village Designer, the size restrictions were severe - the base no bigger than 20 inches by 20 inches, and the house, not over 15 inches tall. We baked huge slabs of red gingerbread to create an enormous red barn.

Although it was entered in the children's category, at one point there were ten adults making farm animals out of fondant. Fondant is used as ultra-smooth icing for wedding cakes, but you can also model it like Play-Doh.

Let me just say that farm animals are difficult to make. My sister-in-law Vivian labored for hours on a cow that resulted in a strange dog-cow dog breed never before encountered in nature. Mercedes made a giant pig that loomed over the other animals, and my brother David created a strange frog-like creature that might have been an alien. But my friend Randy's creation was the funniest; he attempted a farmer, but it was too thin and flat, almost two-dimensional, so it couldn't stand up. My sister's boyfriend, Jim, fashioned a tractor for the farmer to sit in, which helped, except the tractor looked more like a car or a snowplow.

We slaved over the barn for weeks, and it was spectacular. We won second place in the children's division, and later were delighted to find we scored first in the People's Choice category.

So this year the pressure was on. We started planning in January with visions of an elaborate village scene, expanding to multiple entries we'd link together for a Gingerbread Spectacular.

But the months rolled by and suddenly we had only a week left to build our house. We agreed on Mom's birdhouse idea; we figured birds would be easier than farm animals (no need for legs). We scaled down the size, but it's still fairly huge. Randy found his fondant groove and churned out a slew of cute little birdies. Vivian made a huge blue parrot that we stuck on the side of the house. My brother attached a bird to the top of a curly pretzel, but once again the end result was an alien, so I told him the cat ate it in the middle of the night. Mercedes made a bird holding a marshmallow on a stick, and Mom made a campfire out of gummy worms and pretzels.

We dropped it off the Sunday before the Festival opened, and checked out the competition. There are traditional houses, some mind-boggling in their detail. One is a pair of adjoining row houses, complete with an interior with hardwood floors, a rug, and flowered wallpaper. Another is a drive-in theater, with Finding Nemo up on the screen. One of my favorites is the CWLP power plant, with crumbled Oreo cookie coal, candy cane power poles, and an ice cream cone smokestack. There's even a tiny "slow no wake" sign in the water surrounding the building.

If you haven't been to the festival, you should definitely stop by. In addition to the splendid gingerbread creations, there are lots of spectacular trees, wreaths and dioramas. The festival runs until Nov. 30, and I think you'll love it.

Whew, that was exhausting. But we've already started planning for next year. We're thinking small. Maybe a tiny little house. Maybe a couple of tiny little houses. Or better yet, maybe a tiny little gingerbread village with a lake surrounding it, a re-creation of Springfield . . . We have plenty of time.

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