In 2012, when Matthews resident, Nathalie Friedlander, saw an ad for the Matthews Chamber of Commerce’s annual Gingerbread House Contest, she thought it would be a great experience for the three generations in her family.
Her mother, Rolande Sowers (“Nana”), also of Matthews, was known for her knitting, sewing, floral design, miniature-creations, interior decorating and cake making. Nathalie and her daughters, Maddie and Ella, baked and sewed together. A gingerbread house contest would be one more opportunity to create something, have fun, and, more importantly, be together as a family.
That first year, as amateurs (as they called themselves), they decided to make a small village – each person created a house on a platform. They won 1st place in the Family category.
“This is creating something that is US,” said Rolande, “that we know, before Thanksgiving, that we need to get our stuff together.”
Since then, it’s been a trade-off in winning or placing in most of the annual contests. In past years, their works of art have included a log cabin, Mouse House, marble super-hero-headquarters, Lego creation, and the list goes on.
“In the past, we’d make the gingerbread, slap a few candies (on it) and bum, bum, bum – all done!” said Rolande. “I’m sure if we looked at the first one we made and now these, I can see improvement.”
With the precision of warriors and the knowledge of experienced students, they’ve perfected their techniques using online and magazine ideas, and always discussing and formulating their creations together, in advance. They guesstimate that they spend a few weeks in preparation and upwards of 15-24 man-hours creating the artwork.
Each year, they painstakingly cook and flatten pans of gingerbread – often up to eight batches to get the right consistency and necessary pieces in order. Since everything must be edible, they use items such as beans, icing, pretzels, cereal and fondant, and leftover Halloween candy. Always, they design a cardboard or cardstock prototype to ensure the final product will actually stand the test of time (and transportation).
This year, (for reasons of expediency, timing, and lifestyle), they worked on their creations separately. By all accounts, it’s been a lonelier experience; the in-person contact has been replaced by texting and multiple phone conversations.
Rolande began formulating ideas for her creation several weeks ago - the “Pastel Cottage” (using fondant for the very first time) was born. “I wanted to focus and work out the detail until I was satisfied, and not be rushed,” she said. “It says something to me,” she added, bursting with pride. “I had a lot of fun doing it.”
Shutter, flowers, windows, doors – all of the details must be exact. This year, she worked on her separate pieces flat. “I wanted everything to be precise,” she said. “This is the first time I’ve done it (this way). In a way, it’s a lot easier, but it’s also a lot harder because you can do (even more) detail – you can spend just a few days (on this part, alone)!” she exclaimed.
Across town, Nathalie and daughters were also formulating and making this year’s creations – Maddie’s gazebo and closed umbrella from (the movie) “Frozen,” Ella’s teepee and campfire, and Nathalie’s replica of a house on Lazy Branch Road built using Starbursts, Lifesavers, Jolly Ranchers, Gum Balls, rock candy, popcorn, marshmallows, edible grass, gum and (ball) sprinkles as accessories.
In every discussion, each family member echoes the same sentiments that this experience has provided. “It’s something we get to do as a family,” said Ella. “It’s a fun family experience - making good memories, and something to share with our children.” To which, mother Nathalie replied, “Someone commented that, down the road, I’m going to be the ‘Nana,’ and we can show them the gingerbread houses.”