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A San Francisco feud: If you can't eat it, is it really a gingerbread house?

A San Francisco feud: If you can't eat it, is it really a gingerbread house?
The Fairmont Hotel's executive sous chef Derek Ingraham labors over the hotel's 2009 gingerbread house. Since then it's gotten more elaborate, as has the holiday gingerbread house in the lobby of its rival, the St. Francis Hotel. (Eric Risberg/Associated Press)

One question only: What side is Santa on?

What does gingerbread mean to him — to you? A spicy, spongy cake? A spicy, slightly crispy cookie that dunks perfectly in eggnog? A piece of cardboard coated in decorative frosting?

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That's what San Francisco is fighting over right now: Can you call it "gingerbread" if you can't eat it?

Is gingerbread a food, a building material or a metaphor?

How did the evil facade of a fairy tale, a dream turned to homicide, the Wicked Witch's honey trap for Hansel and Gretel, the come-on maison de gingerbread, turn into a happy holidays symbol?

Two of San Francisco's oldest and ritziest hotels, the St. Francis and the Fairmont, each assembles a massive gingerbread house in the lobby for the holidays — more of a gingerbread castle at the St. Francis, and a 22-foot-tall mansion at the Fairmont.

The Fairmont's is edible; the St. Francis' is not. Hence the argument: If it's inedible, is it truly gingerbread?

The St. Francis head pastry chef, Jean-Francois Houdre, told the San Francisco Chronicle, "Usually we chefs spend hours preparing something to eat and it's gone in a few minutes."

This castle, a sugary marvel of marchpane — the old English name for marzipan; a serving man in "Romeo and Juliet" begged a piece of it — is, shall we say, venerable; some of the pieces have been revived for seven Christmas seasons now.

Because the Fairmont's 22-foot-tall house is a walk-through, the base had to be made sturdier than sweet, out of wood. But like a tasty and very thick coat of paint, the Fairmont's gingerbread residence is tiled with edibles. The Fairmont also welcomes dog guests, and so has a gingerbread doghouse as well.

It's pretty clear no one wants some spoilsport like the health department to step in and render a decision in this feud; the annual PR is too good, the spoils too delicious.

We had a gingerbread house that my mother made, assembled from some instructions in a women's magazine. It had Necco-wafer roof tiles and a candy cane fence and gumdrop walkways. It was impressive, if not beautiful, and after the knuckle-rapping we got trying to steal a morsel, we kids learned very quickly not to try to eat it.

As the years passed, we couldn't have eaten it, period. The candies were ossified, the curlicues of frosting turned to cement.

When it wasn't Christmas, the gingerbread house lived, Santa-like, in a cold, distant place: the deep freeze.

Then, sentimentally, we would never have noshed: that gingerbread house was less about food and more about a centerpiece of memory.

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But at least it wasn't fruitcake.

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Follow Patt Morrison on Twitter @pattmlatimes

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