It looked like an outhouse, the kind you might see in cartoons from the 1950s. Four sad graham crackers huddled against one another bound by runny seams of white frosting. Additional crackers formed the precarious roof, sagging in places. The frosting meant to adhere this fine piece of architecture glopped on like actual tar smeared across the surface to plug up holes and keep the elements at bay. Gumdrops bloomed like wild, spongy, sugary fungi off the sides of the house; a shaggy dusting of red coconut clung pathetically to the roof like the comb-over of an aging clown; a treacherous M&M walkway (made dangerous from the way some of the little hard candies stood higher than the others. Blame it on "frosting" heaves?) led to a door framed by three pieces of Twizzler, the fourth piece lay kicked to the side of a wobbly candy cane lamppost. At 10-years-old I remember being exceedingly proud and crushingly disappointed in my attempt to tackle what I saw as the quintessential marker of holiday magic: the gingerbread house.
Growing up my mother subscribed to Good Housekeeping, which owned the "average, probably stay-at-home mom, relatable-like-Carol Brady demographic." Each December they published a special, holiday gingerbread house competition issue. The cover always featured the winner's creation with a scrumptious six-page spread of runner-ups and reader submissions. "House" was a loose designation. One year someone made a gingerbread Alamo. In another year there was an ornate model of the Polar Express. The competition stiff as that royal icing, it was a mystery to me how judges deemed one confection more superior than the rest. There was a gingerbread replica of Disney's Cinderella's castle that garnered a modest "honorable mention." This was serious gingerbread territory.
I begged my mom to make a gingerbread house. Good Housekeeping wanted their dedicated readers to have the perfect gingerbread Christmas as evidenced by their helpful, "simple" DIY pattern and icing recipe. Mom was having none of it. A woman who bought our plastic Halloween costumes at K-mart and sent us to bake sales with the ever popular sandwich bags of fresh popcorn, Mom was not about to spend an afternoon making sugar candy stained glass windows on our gingerbread Sistine Chapel. Then a friend told me she and her mom used graham crackers instead of gingerbread. Brilliant. How hard could this be? Hence, the birth of the graham cracker "gingerbread" outhouse.
I always loved creative projects, but this was something different. More than the white whale of arts and crafts, I knew early on that it wasn't the making of the house that mattered, but what it represented that I craved: an idyllic, happy, Hallmark kind of life that looked right; a life of right angles and symmetry, a life as perfect and beautiful as the hard, inedible ice cream cone evergreens with their fondant pearls.
There is so much talk in our everyday lives about perfection, chatter that gets amplified to a screech during the holidays (Thanks Pinterest! Kudos Elf on the Shelf!). Few are immune. Those who say otherwise are either lying or else blissfully medicated until about Arbor Day. The gingerbread house is one of those holiday perfection metrics that goes beyond a fancy wrapping job or killer buffet spread. It feels like an absurd measure of quality that women are seduced into believing is preferable to the gingerbread outhouse alternative: quirky, skewed, imperfect, lacking, unique, and real.
I am a pretty confident baker and the holidays are my high holy season where I get to butter, flour, sugar, chocolate, and sprinkle to my little heart's desire. It would not be a stretch to bake dough, make frosting, and amass a trove of candied building materials to finally make the gingerbread log cabin or Guggenheim of my dreams, to finally get it right. But then I think, why attempt perfect when real is so much better?