Gingerbread Art and the Allegory of Edibility1
SUE SAMUELSON AWARD FOR FOODWAYS SCHOLARSHIP

1st PLACE WINNER 2013.



The old woman had only pretended to be so kind. She was in reality a wicked witch, who lay in wait for children, and had only built the little house of bread in order to entice them there. When a child fell into her power, she killed it, cooked and ate it, and that was a feast day with her.
"Hansel and Gretel," Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, 1812


“I’m Tamera, and I’m gingerbread obsessed,” Tamera Holland said directly into the TV cameras for TLC’s 2013 segment on “My Crazy Christmas Obsessions.” The Virginian woman, the narrator relates, has “turned the interior of her home into a gingerbread fantasyland” replete with gingerbread men, miniature gingerbread houses, and a 150 pounds of ginger stashed away in her basement (My Crazy Obsession 2013). The episode concludes with Holland overcome with joy, discovering her house had been painted, decorated, and transformed into a gingerbread house.


Holland might not represent the typical “gingerbreader,” the preferred term for gingerbread house artists, but the way that she is represented characterizes American popular cultural attitudes towards gingerbread houses and the women who make them. The craft is disparaged as whimsy, eccentric, a waste of time and food, largely the province of women who lack real creative outlets or meaningful artistic pursuits. Unlike nearly all other forms of American home craft (knitting, for example, or baking), gingerbread houses actually deplete family resources. A gingerbreader takes edible materials – ginger, flour, candy, molasses, salt, an egg – and concocts them into inedible form of ephemeral art. In contrast to the “no-bake” or pre-fab gingerbread house kits, which serious gingerbreaders often dismiss as lazy or inauthentic, from-scratch houses are made from “construction gingerbread” and usually sprayed with an inedible (or outright poisonous) lacquer after completion. Construction gingerbread, though technically still edible, uses far more flour than regular gingerbread to increase material sturdiness and durability. Taste is compromised for considerations of construction and, as many attest, gingerbread houses are not to be eaten.


Gingerbread houses are symbolically complex. As both a home craft and a form of folk art, a symbol of home labor and a feature of commercial window displays, a commodified product and a deeply private artistic pursuit, gingerbread houses defy traditional classification as objects of study. They are indebted to a long history of folk art, folklore, and women’s home craft. Though often dismissed as mere Christmas domestic craft, a close scholarly reading of these art objects, combined with personal reflections from gingerbreaders, clearly indicate their great folkloric significance.


Most broadly, the contemporary American gingerbread house both affirms and indicts the expectations of folklore and domestic life. In recasting the single-family home as ephemeral, edible art, the gingerbread artist defamiliarizes that “home” as both symbol and site. Gingerbread houses literalize homemaking to create elaborate fantasy worlds that represent an alternative and, arguably, a threat to the expectations of American domesticity – thrift, family-first orientation, and self-abnegation to buttress the sanctified domestic realm far from violence and the public sphere. The so-called "death of a gingerbread house" methods of disposal (in which the house is exploded, knifed, or trampled) finally suggests the gingerbreader's power to deplete family resources and destroy them in acts of violence. By comparing brick-and-mortar to gingerbread houses, we see that though the "house" is the symbolic foundation of the American family and domestic ideal, the act of creating and destroying the gingerbread house recasts this concept of the house as constructed, fragile, ephemeral, and dangerous.


To interpret the many meanings of gingerbread houses, my framework is grounded in theories of folklore and folk art, gender studies, literary history, and food studies. My research draws from a dozen interviews and questionnaires I posed to gingerbread house makers. These interviews are supplemented with textual analysis of gingerbread manuals, the history of gingerbread, and a close reading of the art objects themselves.


An “Elixir of Mysterious Origin”: The History of Gingerbread and the Brothers Grimm


If gingerbread houses have a strange and tangled history, ginger itself is even stranger. Arab spice dealers purposefully masked ginger’s provenance “by concocting fantastic stories” about this “elixir of mysterious origin” (Cost 1984:118). Ancient Greeks used ginger medicinally for everything from nausea to expelling nocturnal sexual demons; the Roman government imposed a luxury tax on the valuable spice (Cost 1984:119). Some translations of the late 4th or early 5th century term “tractomelitus,” found in Ancient Roman cookbooks, define the food as “gingerbread or honeybread composition" Cost 1984:118). Ancient Greeks used ginger medicinally for everything from nausea to expelling nocturnal sexual demons; the Roman government imposed a luxury tax on the valuable spice (Apicius and Vehling 1977:299). An integral commodity in the medieval spice trade, Marco Polo considered ginger among the “precious spices” of “spikenard, galingale, and ginger” of Peking, a discovery he chronicled in his thirteenth century Travels of Marco Polo (Polo c.1300:167).


Sources suggest that ginger was not used typically used as a pastry ingredient until the 14th century, when German bakers incorporated the spice into cookies and other baked goods. The historical record is largely mute and offers little chronology on the exact transition from ginger to gingerbread and gingerbread to an architectural material. However, the Germanic influence is clear throughout the historical record. The earliest mention of anthropomorphic or architectural gingerbread claims that, in 1486, Emperor Friedrich III ordered 4,000 gingerbread cookies to be made in his likeness (Cost 1984:118). Ancient Greeks used ginger medicinally for everything from nausea to expelling nocturnal sexual demons; the Roman government imposed a luxury tax on the valuable spice (Steves 2005:152). From his castle, the Emperor then distributed each cookie to a child. For stories like this, Nurenberg is still known as the “Gingerbread Capital of the World" (Cost 1984:118). Ancient Greeks used ginger medicinally for everything from nausea to expelling nocturnal sexual demons; the Roman government imposed a luxury tax on the valuable spice (Vosburg-Hall 2002:24).


The Brothers Grimm retelling of the German household tale “Hansel and Gretel” popularized the creation of houses from gingerbread (Cost 1984:118). Ancient Greeks used ginger medicinally for everything from nausea to expelling nocturnal sexual demons; the Roman government imposed a luxury tax on the valuable spice (Jarrett 1984: 8). To this day, the most popular gingerbread architecture is referred to as “Hansel and Gretel” style: a Germanic one-story peasant house with steeply pitched A-shaped roofs, window shutters, and walkways (see Figure 1). Surprisingly, the original “Hansel and Gretel” house may not have been made from gingerbread. In fact, none of the four 18th century editions of the Grimms’ Kinder- und Hausmärchen specify that the witch’s house is made of gingerbread – only “bread covered with cake” with sugar-paned windows (Ellis 1983:190). Only later 19th century retellings of the story specify “gingerbread” as the building material.


Today, nearly all contemporary retellings of “Hansel and Gretel” either depict a gingerbread house or describe gumdrop porticos, chocolate chimneys, lollipop lanterns, and other sweet décor of the gingerbread paradise. Most gingerbreaders similarly reference “Hansel in Gretel” when discussing the origins of the folk art. Even though the connection between the German tale and contemporary folk art may not be historically watertight, the two remain fundamentally intertwined in the American popular imagination and a closer textual analysis of the tale is important to better understand of the nuance of gingerbread today.


The Grimms’ collection of fairy tales was presented as a word-for-word account of illiterate folk peoples as part of the effort to create a national German identity in a “spirit of devotion to their fatherland” (Ellis 1983:6). In their 1812 preface, the Grimm brothers wrote that they considered themselves “collectors” of folk tales rather than scholarly “writers.” Although later editions clearly demonstrated that the Grimm brothers edited, reformatted, and, at times, concocted their stories, Grimm expert John Ellis writes that “a standard view of the provenance of the tales emerged” that was as “durable and charming” as the stories themselves (Ellis 1983:8). Most popular accounts of the Grimms still depict the brothers meandering around the German countryside and transcribing age-old tales from illiterate peasants around crackling fireplaces in small cottages. Although Ellis and other folklore scholars argue this provenance is little more than myth, the desire for a definite cultural heritage superseded any factual or thematic contradictions in the Grimms’ work.


The tendency towards mythopoeia in representations of national history is as strong in gingerbread houses as it was in the Grimms’ work. Like the Grimms’ tales, American gingerbread houses deploy assumptions made of folklore and folk art to embed a national cultural history in the American public memory. A comprehensive analysis of the architectural forms of gingerbread houses reveals the same mythopeia of American “folk” history as the Grimm collection of tales romanticizes German “folk” peasantry. Themes of American cozy log cabins, snug saltbox homes, quaint country chapels match myth for myth with the ideas of dirndl-dressed “simpler townspeople” and ruddy-cheeked peasants (Ellis 1983:8).


Much like the Brothers Grimm, most gingerbreaders are acutely aware of the dialogue between the objects they create and the society to which they belong. While the Grimms aspired to create a national folk literature as a project of German nationalism, gingerbread artists also deconstruct and re-represent American folk culture by manipulating the very stereotypes of folk artists that scholars like the Grimms helped establish. By capitalizing on the assumptions made of folk art, gingerbread house makers put their conflicting identities as women, as artists, as laborers, and as homemakers in productive tension.


Rustic Naïve? Folklore, Storytelling, and the Gingerbread House


Folk art, like folklore, is commonly perceived as the products of a “rustic naïve” who creates objects not from any substantial body of knowledge, but from nature, instinct, and simplicity (Vlach 1997:114). Grimms’ fictional informants – the “simple” and “common” German peasant storytellers – represent a common image of folk artists Ellis 1983:8). Conceived of as both “untutored and natural,” many scholars believe that literacy, education, and self-awareness have the ability to “contaminate” the purity of their folk sources (Ellis 1983:26). Authentic folk art often implies an ethnographic “purity” on part of the sources. Folk artists’ personality as well as their social role is caricatured: the artists are often misperceived as “likable, happy souls,” whose sincerity produces an authentic art form that “rolls endlessly from the hands of its makers and over which they have little control or responsibility" (Vlach 1997:114). Further, art historian John Michael Vlach recognizes the common connection between folk artists and the “domestic arena” in which the art serves to satisfy a group’s “collective and spiritual needs” (1997:110-11).


Gingerbread houses map closely onto this definition of folk art as untutored, sincere, and simplistic. Though, as we will see, they are often complex architectural constructions that require sophisticated technique and a thorough understanding of material science, the houses are often dismissed as simple, cute creations. Many sources describe the houses as “whimsical,” “delightful,” and “charming” in how-to books and other literary sources (See Tribble 2004 and Gunter 2004). Allen Bragdon, author of The Gingerbread Book, writes that “memorable gingerbread houses are made with patience and imagination,” contradicting his later instructions on complicated moldings, elaborate icing techniques, and sophisticated architectural detail (1984:6).


Gingerbread artists themselves are eager to disparage and dismiss the artistic meaning and symbolism of their art. In our correspondence, gingerbread house maker Nancy Rekowski warned me against “overthink[ing] the psychology of GB [gingerbread] as it’s just simply, warm, fuzzy, tradition, and fun.” Another gingerbread artist, Susan Willner, assured me that, although I asked some interesting questions, “gingerbread house making is about togetherness and fun. It’s that simple. . . it’s just about fun and whimsy and giggles” (Willner 2008).


For other gingerbreaders, the "meaning" or importance of gingerbread is fraught with psychological contradiction. Nancy Rekowski -- the same informant who warned


me about "overthinking" the "warm, fuzzy" gingerbread -- also insisted that, gingerbread


teaches: "the importance of tradition, artistic expression, challeging [sic] herself to accomplish more skills, decision making and problem solving" (Rekowski 2008). This rhetoric is common throughout the more “professional” spheres of gingerbread house making as a form of architectural training or education in materials science.


Few men support these pursuits, similarly dismissing the art as trivial. In fact, Tamera Holland’s husband resented his wife’s obsession and, to his chagrin, was helpless in halting Holland’s daily gingerbread-house collecting and construction. In the words of one gingerbreader whose husband jokingly threatened their marriage on the prospect of her making another house, “It’s too much stress. To work on a house takes up everything. It becomes an obsession” (Roberts 2006:1). In concrete terms, as well, gingerbreaders agree that their gingerbread art is often created at the expense of regular domestic duties. Maria Sprat told me her husband “doesn’t like the mess and the time it takes” (Sprat 2008).


Most, however, point to ephemerality as the incontrovertible “evidence” of gingerbread’s triviality: edible art, after all, is always ephemeral. Even with the poisonous shellac, most gingerbreaders estimate their art to have a lifespan of a year, at most. The “cozy cheer” of “Cozy Log Cabin” might, in the end, be as impermanent a fantasy as those offered by romance novels but, unlike the novel, the gingerbread house stands as artifact and evidence: offering proof that the artist envisioned her dreams and articulated them in art, however ephemeral that art might be.


Home Making and Making Homes: The Mythologies of Motherhood and Gingerbread


Much like the German boosterism that affected the Grimms’ collection of folktales, the historical and social conditions of modern gingerbreaders influence their art practice. Though the circumstances of their production differ, we can draw from prior research and assume, broadly, that a typical American gingerbread artist is a woman homemaker and mother who makes the gingerbread house during the Christmas season. Though some more “serious” gingerbread competitions – such as the annual “design competition” hosted by Boston Society of Architects – do feature male participants, the vast majority of gingerbread house makers are women who construct the houses in the domestic sphere: their studio, in other words, is the kitchen table. As one journalist quipped, “This is, as you may have guessed, a chick thing” Roberts 2006:2).


While many how-to books and photographs depict children’s participation in the gingerbread house making, I have discovered that children’s actual involvement in minimal. One explanation for this incongruity – between the assumption of children’s participation and the limited role they actually serve in the house construction -- might be that gingerbread kits (which really do target children) have a more visible market presence. However, this doesn’t account for the prominence of children in how-to books for serious gingerbreading. A better explanation for this incongruity is to justify their mother’s considerable investment of time, energy, money, and domestic space into the gingerbread project. For example, one gingerbreader reveals the labor divide of gingerbread house making when she assumes her young daughter’s voice. She writes, “Mom and I made the cutest little gingerbread house. . . well, actually, Mom made the house while I ate the sweet icing and candy!” (
Walsh 2008). Similarly, gingerbreader Susan Van Wig related the history of her annual gingerbread house decorating party: she first asked each of her children to invite a friend and their mothers but, “the moms had so much fun that I quit inviting the kids” (Van Wig 2008).


Van Wig’s story is telling. One useful distinction is between “kit” gingerbread houses (inexpensive graham cracker kits with premade building materials) and serious gingerbread pursuits, usually defined by homemade building materials of real gingerbread. Kit gingerbread houses do invite children’s participation and many mothers will supervise their children’s construction of the kit houses – which usually means little more than frosting together precut crackers and decorating with candy canes. As one graham cracker manual put it, with real homemade gingerbread, “the structure itself can be a bit of a wobbly headache. Getting large pieces of gingerbread to fit together with frosting glue is not an easy task, especially for a child's hands” (Donovan 2014). In a post titled “fun activities for kids,” one casual gingerbread house maker claimed “making gingerbread from scratch is time-consuming and difficult. Graham cracker gingerbread houses are a great compromise” (Rodriguez 2014).


Serious gingerbread houses require an entirely different set of skills and sophisticated technique: knowledge of heat and durability, careful geometric cutting, estimations of load-bearing capability. Gingerbread houses often collapse before the decorating stage and, even in very capable adult hands, most initial attempts end in defeat. Most how-to books recommend a minimum of two days to successfully complete the simplest of houses. Elaborate, expensive, and esoteric equipment like corsage pins, pastry tubes, pizza cutters, dressmaker pins, graph paper, an electric mixer, multiple Teflon cookie sheets are often recommended, if not required, by some manuals (Tribble 2004:34). Many gingerbreaders disclose they spend hundreds of hours on a single house Roberts 2006:1).


Even as certain conventions are upheld, two artists in the same small gingerbread community often make astonishingly different houses – architecturally, conceptually, artistically, constructed from different materials, evincing a different vision of the imaginative world of gingerbread art. While Henry Glassie considers folk artists’ “replication as an affirmation of a tradition,” creativity and innovation are regularly encouraged in how-to manuals even as certain architectural standards are consistent Glassie 1972: 130). In face of the A-frame convention, many gingerbreaders deny a defining architectural gingerbread house style. In fact, one recipe author encourages artists to strive for a “one-of-a-kind creation” after letting their “imagination run free” (Filipone 2008). Shared stylistic forms and self-identification indicate that gingerbreaders are aware of their membership in a community of folk artists, but still, the beauty and diversity of the houses contradicts what art historian John Vlach considered folk artists’ “denial of self” (Vlach, 111).


As art objects, gingerbread houses clearly demonstrate not only their artist’s access to an arsenal of time, material, skills, and money, but also the artist’s willingness to wield these resources and control the built environment. Vlach believes that a folk artist’s “loss of personal power” is balanced by the “advantages of a social role” (Vlach 1997: 111), but, in this instance, gingerbread houses constitute a gain of power that is balanced by the disadvantages of their social role. In this light, gingerbread houses do not produce a “loss of personal power” but, considering the context in which they are typically made, an affirmation of that power (Vlach 1997: 111). When we expand Vlach’s analysis to include domestic, ephemeral home craft, the power structure flips to reflect the artist’s ownership of resources within the limited domestic sphere. The mythologies of motherhood and housemaking intertwine with American cultural history to create a meaningful symbol of how mothers view themselves and their labor: in a house, made of sweets, that simultaneously alludes to poison and paradise.


Architectural Dreams of Womanhood: Fantasies of Home-Making


Considering the close connection between womanhood and the home, the gingerbread house can be considered metonymically representative of its artist. Houses have long been associated with the body of the woman who “makes” the home. In her psychoanalytic feminist reading of “Hansel and Gretel,” Joan Gould argues that all houses in the Grimms’ tales represent the bodies of the women that inhabit them - that when Hansel and Gretel feast on the edible cottage, that they are also feasting on the witch’s body (Gould 2005). Whether or not we accept Gould’s argument, the intimate connection between women and houses clearly persists in contemporary American culture. In the 1950s, advertisements for household appliances and kitchen décor regularly visually equated the housewife to the home, using color matching to link blouses to curtains, hair tone to refrigerators. Cynthia Henthorn writes that the "smooth contours, the aerodynamic curves. . . round chromed surfaces indicated the ‘character’ of the house – which included the mental, moral, and physical characteristics" of its residents 2006:159). To this day, the “house-body-woman” triad identified by architectural historian Annmarie Adams persists in Western approaches to the division between the public and private sphere (2001:3).


However, modern gingerbread houses differ from the “Hansel and Gretel” cottage and the postwar dream home as the gingerbread house is not a passive representation thrust upon the cannibalistic crone or the complacent matron, respectively, who inhabit it. Rather, the gingerbreader recreates her vision of an edible fantasyland. Particular to the “Hansel and Gretel” theme, the edible house represents a crone’s ensnarement of children who, eventually burn her to death. In making gingerbread houses, modern women are actively repurposing an old and repulsive symbol into their individual gingerbread fantasy world.


This fantasy world is a beautiful, imaginative land of leisure, symmetry, and perfection while depicting a complete absence of inhabitants. To gingerbreaders, the investment of time, money, and, perhaps, level-headedness, becomes worthwhile in the moment when “you breathlessly pull your hands away” from the finished creation ( 2004:12). The finished creation is, invariably, a fantasy world which reveals the single-family house -- the cornerstone of the American family and domestic ideal -- to be an aestheticized constructions as fragile as a house made of cookies and caulked with sugar.


The art objects speak for themselves. The vernacular ideal gingerbread house is its own fantasy; a single family home with no inhabitants, pristine, private, isolated in its total self-sufficiency (when hunger strikes, the sugar stoop or candy copulas are ready for the taking). Unlike the exposed, segmented dollhouse which welcomes close inspection, the gingerbread house is completely sealed from prying eyes.


Gingerbread house descriptions are rife with references to dreaming, fantasies, and magic: in Veronika Gunter’s Making Gingerbread Houses, the accompanying text to Cozy Cabin (Figure 2) reads “daydream about a holiday retreat in this rustic log cabin, complete with a rocking chair and a handsome chimney” 2004:27). In Gunter’s book, the house titles of Candyland Fantasy, Storybook Stone Cottage, and Pooch Paradise all echo themes of fantasy and desire. Historical revivals of log cabins and saltbox houses stand next to Japanese tea houses and moon landings. Castles and windmills are common themes. These fantasy houses demonstrate escape much more than they do daydream.


Similarly, gingerbread house artists themselves recognize their gingerbread house as a creative outlet to realize their dreams; Loreta Wilson related to me that “building a gingerbread house fulfills my childhood dream of becoming an architect” (Wilson 2008).


However, even these castles and tiki huts mix fantasy and realism. Gingerbread houses bear close resemblance to the actual architectural world: a mix of dreams and the day-to-day. By mingling the fantastical and the realistic in artistic themes, gingerbread house fantasy worlds reveal much about the world from which they derive. No matter if some houses are themed as spaceships or castles, all houses are based on a loose definition of the archetypal gingerbread house. The peaked roof, the edible materials, the general size and materials all remain relatively constant even in the Treetop Playhouse or the Tropical Tiki Hut (see Figure 3). Moreover, gingerbreaders themselves often say they derive their gingerbread house styles from real houses; Melody M. credits her inspiration to her Alaskan landscape and, when she “exhausts all those themes” she takes to “googl[ing] pictures of what I'm looking for, Beach house for instance. Last year was a yacht club bird house” (M., Melody 2008). Other gingerbread artists say they find their creative spark in walking their neighborhoods or looking at famous homes – the White House, for instance.


Unlike dollhouses or other miniatures, gingerbread houses are rarely embedded in a cityscape or larger urban fabric. In contrast to the standalone gingerbread house, the dollhouse looks more like a public expose, an autopsy of the domestic body immediately available to the gaze. Nearly all gingerbread houses are displayed alone, usually on a raised platform, with little exterior embellishment. The house is self-contained, private, tight-lipped about whatever life it might contain within its cookie walls. In its thematic emphasis on self-sufficiency, the gingerbread house can be interpreted as a literal assertion of ownership – ownership over household staples, ownership over the creative processes of art, ownership over time and skill and creative vision.


Poisons and Paradise: Edibility, Privacy, and the American Domestic Ideal


Journalist Roxane Roberts calls her art an “addiction” so severe she “doesn’t remember how many hours I spent hunched over the dining room table” disregarding the accumulating “guilt pile” of books to read or her “home office to organize” (Roberts 2006:2). In neglecting their usual chores, Roberts, Spratt, and other gingerbreaders affirm their agency to choose whether to continue the domestic chores of their day-to-day lives. By consuming their lives with the gingerbread project, gingerbreaders assert their power to occupy the dining room table, to neglect work, and, importantly, to transform family food into not-to-be-eaten art material.


The transition from edible to non-edible materials demonstrates women’s ownership of her family resources. In the moment she transforms edible materials from the pantry into a non-edible art, the gingerbreader prioritizes herself and her art over and at the expense of her family. By dedicating her own time and labor to the art, the gingerbreader shows her ownership of her personal resources -- but the transformation of family food into non-edible materials demonstrates the gingerbreader’s ownership of and, in this moment, threat to family resources.


The transition from edible to non-edible becomes clear in conversations with gingerbreaders: Roberts writes “these houses are never meant to be eaten. . .they are strictly for show” (2006:12). Veronica Gunter recommends burning the house pieces to a crisp because they are “not cookies, they are building materials” (Gunter 2004:27). In some cases, the gingerbread houses are not simple unappetizing or stale, but poisonous as a result of the shellac many gingerbreaders use for its preservative qualities. Most shellacs are very dangerous: in one gruesome story, a gingerbreader told an online forum how mice died from nibbling at the shellacked gingerbread house. After storing the house in her basement for a year, the gingerbreader discovered brittle skeletons of little mice lying dead by her gnawed gingerbread house.


Much how Hansel and Gretel’s stepmother claims her family’s last loaf of bread, the gingerbreader prioritizes self over family in the moment when she appropriates and lethalizes her family food. Considering these polarities, we can see many gingerbread artists as they see themselves: pressed for time, taxed by family demands, and living in a laboring, harried, and crowded world. With the promise of privacy, the gingerbread house speaks to women beset by family demands. With the semblance of property ownership, the gingerbread house speaks to the actual ownership of household materials. The neglect of household chores and the damage to family resources intimates that the gingerbread house poses a clear assertion of individual power and, arguably, a symbolic threat towards the family-oriented self-abnegation expected of American domestic life.


Death of a Gingerbread House


Typically, however, gingerbreaders do not passively allow their art to decay. Instead of allowing the houses to crumble or rot, most gingerbreaders exert their power by crushing, burning, kicking, collapsing, and otherwise destroying their houses. This final muscular gesture articulates both the power of the gingerbreader to create and destroy, to dream and to demolish. A genre of YouTube videos titled “Death of a Gingerbread House” demonstrates the creativity of gingerbread violence. In hundreds of these videos, gingerbread houses are burned after being doused with lighter fluid, run over by a truck, or, in one case, exploded with small bombs (see Figure 4). Gingerbread houses have been “killed” by bowling balls, torches, hammers, stabbed with knives or shot with handguns. Figures 5 and 6 show a typical scene: a gingerbread house exploding into flames` while onlookers shriek with delight.


My respondents reported that they destroyed their houses in January, typically soon after the New Year. While these videos may not be representative of the majority of most gingerbread house eliminations, most gingerbreaders I spoke to reported that they either crush or trample the gingerbread house. Only one of my twelve respondents said “We just throw away what’s left,” but she qualifies with this statement by acknowledging that this method of disposal is “Sort of unceremonious” (Robertson 2008). However, the videos posted on YouTube are mostly narrated by men – presumably, the husbands or sons of the gingerbreaders who are participating in or orchestrating the gingerbread house destruction. This might suggest the larger animosity evident between Holland and her husband or the tension that so often develops between men and women when the subject of gingerbread houses is raised. Or it might somehow reflect the deep-seated psychological themes in the original “Hansel and Gretel” tale. Gretel may have pushed the old witch into the oven to save Hansel’s life, but, as the Brothers Grimm reminds us, “then she [the witch] began to howl quite horribly, but Gretel ran away and the godless witch was miserably burnt to death" (1977:46).


In this final, muscular act of destruction, the gingerbread artist simultaneously exerts her power and reveals her powerlessness. While gingerbread houses clearly adhere to the conventions of folklore and the folk art form, their artistic power comes not from their conformity but their subversion, not from their strength but their fragility. Perhaps, then, the gingerbreader’s steadfast insistence on the art’s triviality might be a way to fend off more serious accusations of subversion. Or, perhaps, like all forms of folklore – art, tales, performances – gingerbread houses serve to represent us to ourselves, and, much like Geertz’s cockfighters, the individuals involved may not be aware of the depth of their symbolic weight.


By transforming the single-family home -- the key symbol of the American domestic -- into an art object and then destroying it with fire or knives, gingerbread artists suggest that their real houses are also fragile, vulnerable, and saturated with a symbolic darkness. As allegory and artifact, the birth and death of a gingerbread house literalizes many tensions of American domestic life, perhaps comparing gingerbread and brick-and-mortar family houses to reveal the constructedness of both "homes." Both gingerbread and brick-and-mortar houses are fantasies of the domestic, made and re-made by the women who do the daily tasks of "home-making." In the end, the many gruesome gingerbread murders do not suggest any weakness of the women who make them, but the vulunerabilities of the world that these women uphold.

Figure 1 Figure 2 Figure 3 Figure 4


Figure 4. Jlibby's "Gingerbread Explosion." Uploaded August 5th, 2006. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VOPCR-4R9Dg (accessed June 2 2014).

Figure 5


Figure 5. Screenshot captured mid-throw as Liz Craig hurls gingerbread house towards wall. "Death to Gingerbread!" Uploaded to YouTube January 16, 2014 by 103.9 "The Juice." Caption reads, "Liz Craig decides to destroy her own creation." https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AEZUOvAYIkI (accessed August 1 2014).

Figure 6


Figure 6. A few seconds later in the "Death to Gingerbread!" video, the house is smashed into pieces as the three women cheer.

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    Notes
  • 1 I prepared this paper in 2008, for a seminar taught by Professor Margaretta Lovell in the Art History department at UC Berkeley. Margaretta Lovell’s good humor, patience, and intelligence are unparalleled and I am proud to be in her debt. I would like to thank Shelley Fisher Fishkin, Michael Johnson, and Diane Tye for their editing and encouragement. I am also especially grateful to the gingerbread house artists who shared their insights and encouraged the development of this paper.
  • 2 Ellis (1983) stumbled when he argued for the purity of the Grimms’ folktales before the tales were "corrupted:" when the peasant “village storytellers” were revealed as “thoroughly middle-class and literate.” According to Ellis, the tales would be a purer form of uncontaminated folk art had the Grimms collected oral traditions word-for-word from peasants. In this, he assumes a baser, simpler, and more sincere folk exists from which to compare the Grimms’ middle class sources, failing to account for the cultural complexities of all Germans living in this turbulent time.
  • 3 As small-scale contests like the Rogowski Winter Wonderland Gingerbread House Contest demonstrate, even members of the same small gingerbreading community often create radically difference creations. In the 2007 contest, photos show a two-foot high spaceship house neighboring a turreted medieval castle, replete with a flying dragons and a moat.
  • 4 Historically, ginger has also been closely associated with women. In British English, redheaded men are colloquially referred to as “red” while redheaded women are commonly nicknamed “ginger.”