The auditorium door flew open and suddenly the foyer of the Richard Nixon Library echoed with the squeak and flap of sports shoes on marble. An eager herd of teenagers raced toward a quartet of Christmas carolers and a dignified-looking 72-year-old man in a chef's toque.
The carolers segued into a jazzed-up version of "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town," and the man in the toque was introduced as Hans Raffert, whose 23-year stint as a White House chef (1969-'92) is the standing record. The Costa Mesa high school students, dressed in the usual teenage gear, applauded enthusiastically.
The story here last Thursday was the unveiling of two gingerbread houses, which sat amid the library's exhibit of Christmas greetings and gifts of this century's presidents. One was the traditional Hansel and Gretel sort of gingerbread house with a high, steep Central European roof. The other was shaped like a California bungalow; in fact, it was modeled on the Nixon birthplace right up the block.
Raffert was certainly the man to make them. He was the chef who started the custom of making an annual White House gingerbread house. (This is not the first gingerbread house shaped like a presidential childhood home, incidentally. In the last two years, the Clintons have had the White House kitchen make gingerbread versions of both their own homes.)
Raffert patiently explained to the high schoolers how a gingerbread house is made (he'd made these in the kitchen of the Hyatt Irvine). He allowed that the California bungalow style was a little more complicated to put together than the traditional kind. It stands three feet high and weighs 45 pounds, almost half the weight being sugar. You can use any hard gingerbread recipe for a gingerbread house, he said, or even a gingersnap or cookie recipe.
The bungalow roof, unlike the one on the Hansel and Gretel-style house, isn't covered with candies and white icing but with just a sprinkling of white to suggest light snow. "It has snowed in Yorba Linda," Kevin Cartwright of the Nixon Library assured everybody, to a pretty good harvest of chuckles. (For the record, it snowed in Yorba Linda on Jan. 2, 1975.)
The gingerbread bungalow is a pretty good scale model of the Nixon home, though if you hold it up next to the original, the treatment of the front windows may seem a little free, and if you're just being picky, the pantry cooler behind the chimney is missing. (The library gift shop had a small number of earring-sized scale models of the gingerbread house for sale, and they also showed the difficulty of keeping all the details in miniaturization.) On the other hand, if we actually had to live in a gingerbread house, most of us would definitely pick a cozy, convenient bungalow over a spooky foreign house where the main attraction is an oven for roasting little children.
The gingerbread houses will be on display daily (except Christmas Day) at the Richard Nixon Library and Birthplace, 18001 Yorba Linda Blvd., Yorba Linda, until Jan. 5. They will still be edible at that time, and the library is entertaining suggestions about where to donate them.