Construction craft, culinary prowess combine in competition

By Scott Swanson
Of The New Era/Lebanon Local

Cynthia Fox has big plans for Sweet Home and they hinge on … gingerbread.

Four times Fox has organized a gingerbread competition at her church, Sweet Home New Life In Christ Fellowship, formerly known as the Sweet Home Mennonite Church, at 1266 44th Ave.

The event is key to a plan she has for the community.

But first, a refresher on gingerbread.

Haygen Magee, 5, stands next to her Child Division entry.

There’s a lot more to this than just the fairy tale and maybe the song some of us may recall from our childhoods about the little guy who taunted pursuers as he ran from them, only to end up in the jaws of a sly fox.

Gingerbread has been around for more than 1,000 years, brought to Europe by an Armenian monk.

It’s been made in Torun (now Poland) since the 13th century and various varieties have been popular over the years in almost every European country. It was made of spices such as ginger, pepper and nutmeg, sweetened with honey or sugar, decorated with icing, candy or foil, and often sold at fairs.

Those ingredients weren’t always cheap, so it was often a specialty item, reserved for celebrations or wealthier society.

“Spices were rare in the 1700s,” Fox said. “Gingerbread was a rare and expensive thing, a special treat.”

Early settlers brought gingerbread to America, and because molasses was less expensive than sugar, it became a common ingredient, producing a softer cookietype pastry.

This gingerbread cottage, created by the Wixon family, was the Best in Show winner. Photo courtesy of Sweet Home Gingerbread Competition

Depending on ingredients and local customs (read recipes), gingerbread can be a biscuit, cake or cookie, which it tends to be in America, where it is often cut into shapes and is often used to construct elaborate buildings or scenes, especially during the Christmas holidays. According to historians, gingerbread houses originated in Germany during the 16th century.

It’s those gingerbread houses that Fox is aiming to promote in Sweet Home.

She said she got interested in gingerbread while her four children were growing up.

“I got fascinated,” Fox said, noting that her kids ranged from 2 to 8 at the time.

She learned that people would create gingerbread houses during the Christmas season, then break them as the new year dawned, “and all the kids would eat the cookie.”

She started experimenting, making houses, and her children learned to decorate her creations.

“Suddenly, the places I worked wanted it too,” Fox said. “It became a tradition, great memories.”

She founded the Gingerbread House Contest in 2017 at her church. This year’s event was held Dec. 17.

“This would have been the sixth year, except we didn’t have it in 2020 and 2021 because we didn’t want to have large gatherings at that time,” she said.

Entries in the competition are exhibited on tables in the church’s fellowship hall, and they are judged, with cash prizes going to the creators of the top picks. They are judged on such criteria as overall effect, continuity of theme, design originality and uniformity, difficulty of embellishments and structure, and precision.

Fox said the contest is one of the church’s activities aimed at encouraging families to participate together.

New Life has held outdoor movie nights for the last six summers for the same reason, she said.

“Anything that supports the family doing it together.”

This year, two of the competitors were sisters who saw the contest advertised and decided to participate.

“They got their grandmother’s old mold, which they used in the competition,” Fox said.

Katie Robeck, with her mother Cindy Robeck, checks out a prizewinner in the 2022 Sweet Home Gingerbread Competition.

Participation in this year’s contest was significantly lower than expected, she said, due to the sickness going around, which prevented at least 10 of those who had signed up to participate from being able to.

Nonetheless, she said, “We have a big-time vision for what this will be.”

Fox said she hopes to see the event become a “draw” for Sweet Home “and people come from all over because the competition is so intense and the creations so amazing. That’s our vision.”

She said local businesses have already provided support, donating for prizes, which ranged this year from $75 for the judges’ Best in Show choice and the People’s Choice awards, down to $20 for third place.

The Wixon Family won both Best of Show and First Place in the Groups Division in this year’s contest for a thatched-roof cottage festooned with candies and other goodies.

Other winners in the Groups Division were the Britton family in second and Johnson family third; in the Adult Division, Savana McCalister was first, Cathryn Odom and Katie Robeck tied for second, and Mary Bridge was third; in the Youth Division, Cabela Haygen was first and Joseph Thornton second; and in the Child Division, Magee Haygen was first and Will Thornton second.

Fox said a committee has been formed to organize the competition, and members of the public who are interested are invited to participate. They’re already planning and recruiting contestants for next year’s Sweet Home Gingerbread Competition on Dec. 16, 2023.

“If somebody loves gingerbread as much as we do and wants to be a judge, we want to rotate them through,” Fox said.

Also, the competition has a Facebook group that offers recipes and videos.

Cynthia Fox, left, stands with Ned the Gingerbread during a previous competition. Photo courtesy of Sweet Home Gingerbread Competition

The competition has a mascot, Ned the Gingerbread (“we didn’t assign him a gender,” Fox said) who has made appearances in businesses around town, as well as at Sweet Home’s Parade of Lights on Dec. 10.

Fox hopes to one day take a shot at creating the world’s largest house, “but that’s big-time, down the road,” she said.

“It’s been tough to get things restarted after COVID,” she said. “We’re just building momentum. We’ve got to get this competition on the road, get people to come in and compete.”