A very sweet tradition

Gen Nakanishi demonstrates how to attach the walls on the gingerbread houses. Photos by Kristal Leebrick

If Gen Nakanishi were to add up all the gingerbread houses she’s had her hand in creating over the last 36 years, the result probably would be close to 1,000.

Since 1981, when Nakanishi was working at the Maid of Scandinavia kitchen store in Roseville, she has been teaching people how to make and decorate those candy-laden concoctions. And many of those people have been her neighbors on Grantham Street in St. Anthony Park.

Lattice windows are the first order of business.

For at least 28 years, Nakanishi and her neighbors Ann Bettenberg and Patty Stolpman have been hosting a gingerbread house extravaganza each December. Participants have changed over the years as children grew up (though a few 20-somethings come back to participate), houses sold and new neighbors moved in, but the rhythm of the event is still the same. You get the call from Bettenberg: Go down to Speedy Market to buy your gingerbread mix and if you didn’t save your house pattern from the year before, she’ll get you another one. Show up at Bettenberg’s house on a certain Thursday night—adults only—with your house parts baked and ready to go, then Nakanishi guides the group through the building phase of the project.

Thea Neveroski and Aaron Wallace

First item: creating the lattice windows and the decorative borders on the door. Then the walls go up, then the roof and then the snowy yard surrounding the home. (Unless you’re creating a Hawaiian surf shop, as 7-year-old Nora Imbertson did this year. Her yard was made of graham cracker crumbs to resemble sand.)

Patty Stolpman, Gen Nakanishi and Ann Bettenberg

The houses sit for two or three days to harden, and then the children gather on the weekend to do the real work: filling those walls and roofs with gumdrops, peppermints, marshmallows, Skittles, Nerds, candy canes, chocolates and more chocolates. When asked how the candy decorations are chosen, the unanimous answer was: “We buy what we like to eat.”

Christine Krueger, 11, works on the roof of one of two houses her family created.

“Mostly chocolate,” said 15- year-old Niko Scholtz, as he worked on his Viking longhouse with his 13- year-old sister, Kaia.

We asked Nakanishi what she thought made the perfect gingerbread house: “When the people—the kids—express their individuality. When the houses are first erected they all look the same, but they come alive when everyone does their thing. When they finish, they are all unique.”

Michelle Taylor helps her daughter Nora Imbertson with Nora’s
unique vision of a gingerbread structure: She created a Hawaiian surf shop. In the background, Nora’s sister, Anna Imbertson, works on her more traditional house.

It’s been nearly three decades since Nakanishi started this neighborly tradition, and she plans to keep doing it, she says, until “I don’t have anybody who wants [to make] them anymore.

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