Category Archives: art

Gingerbread Philosophy

“The great gingerbread war has heated up in San Francisco, and it all comes down to one eternal question: Is it a gingerbread house if you can’t eat it?” So asked an article in the Chronicle newspaper a few years ago. Just as I also wondered this morning, when I heard from two young women who for years have used a hot glue gun to put theirs together. I had never heard of such a thing. Their children have started asking when they can eat the house, and the mothers remind them that they always only eat loose candy while they are assembling it.

At our house, we’ve had two gingerbread construction events that I can remember. I wasn’t the instigator. I prefer to provide background support in the form of dishwashing and photography, because cake and icing have always seemed like the most unlikely media for art or architecture, and near certain failure doesn’t sound like fun.

These first photos are from 25 + years ago, when young people could do things solely for fun without having to spend time on their phones taking pictures to share worldwide. My kids and their friends were making two houses, and one never would stay standing. I think the siding was hopelessly warped from being baked on a thin cookie sheet.

In San Francisco, it’s been traditional for the chefs at the Fairmont Hotel to make their large Christmas gingerbread house (top picture) out of completely edible components. Because a gingerbread house is the last thing that should be purely symbolic, right? When my friends and I had a tradition for a few years, of a trip to San Francisco at Christmastime, we appreciated being able to break off pieces of the house to eat. Nibbling was discouraged, true, but every day the house was quietly repaired, and sometimes a repairman chef would hand a child a piece of candy from his kit in hopes that it might mean one less candy cane broken off.

“Go ahead, have a piece,” said Tom Klein, Fairmont hotel’s regional vice president and general manager. He was handing out gingerbread shingles to startled hotel guests in the lobby. Technically, eating the Fairmont’s walk-through gingerbread house is not allowed, but Klein had a point to make about the edibility of the building materials, and the kids he was handing the gingerbread to were not complaining.

“Meanwhile, at the St. Francis, its fanciful baked house was more of a medieval castle, lavishly and intricately decorated by chefs with tweezers. It’s a smaller, more intricate creation, exhibited behind a sturdy metal fence designed to keep grubby little fingers at bay.”

I have seen the St. Francis castle, too, but I don’t  think I knew that it was gingerbread. I read that they recycle the gingerbread from previous houses to make it; that would seem to make it inedible right there. On the other hand, I liked getting a whiff of the Fairmont gingerbread:

I’m not saying that the mothers mentioned above were aiming for Instagram perfection. Probably they just feel the way I do about my Christmas cookies; I enjoy the creative project and like doing it alone. And if a recipe calls for a really messy or difficult ingredient, I just won’t use it. That’s why I don’t make gingerbread houses. Even the most precise and well thought out ones, with slabs of sturdy cake baked on unwarped cookie sheets, must be accepted as “the best we could do with the materials.” Here are my pictures of the more recent one built in my house, spearheaded by Pippin and the Professor.

This year the gingerbread house at the Fairmont is bigger than ever, and you may rent it for “private” dining. Up to ten people can sit at table inside, starting at $300 for two hours. I’m really curious about who will be enjoying that luxury. (It doesn’t sound appealing to me, to be on display to every holiday gawker passing through the opulent lobby, while partaking of such a gimmick.) The population of San Francisco is notoriously low on children, but maybe some well-to-do ladies will stop by with their grandchildren on the way back from seeing “The Nutcracker.”

I do love everything about edible gingerbread houses — their colorful and aromatic, candy-laden selves, and their fairy-tale connections — as long as other people are building them. How unlikely! How extravagant and wild. My style is to let the people get old enough to want to try culinary architecture on their own, and to have the patience to see the project through to the end; until then, I’m happy to make a mess in the kitchen with children of any age, baking gingerbread cookies. And when they’ve had enough of that, and run off after a while, I will also love finishing up on my own!

From this house, what I’d like is a few puffs of malt-ball smoke. ❤

A sense of enduring harmony did not abandon him.

Today we remember the death of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (1918-2008). Below are a couple of paragraphs from his comments on the idea that “beauty will save the world,” from the website of the Intercollegiate Studies Institute:

“One artist imagines himself the creator of an autonomous spiritual world; he hoists upon his shoulders the act of creating this world and of populating it, together with the total responsibility for it. But he collapses under the load, for no mortal genius can bear up under it, just as, in general, the man who declares himself the center of existence is unable to create a balanced spiritual system. And if a failure befalls such a man, the blame is promptly laid to the chronic disharmony of the world, to the complexity of modern man’s divided soul, or to the public’s lack of understanding.

“Another artist recognizes above himself a higher power and joyfully works as a humble apprentice under God’s heaven, though graver and more demanding still is his responsibility for all he writes or paints—and for the souls which apprehend it. However, it was not he who created this world, nor does he control it; there can be no doubts about its foundations. It is merely given to the artist to sense more keenly than others the harmony of the world, the beauty and ugliness of man’s role in it—and to vividly communicate this to mankind. Even amid failure and at the lower depths of existence— in poverty, in prison, and in illness—a sense of enduring harmony cannot abandon him.”

-Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

Nature’s art and nature’s artists.

Just before the weekend linked May to June, I drove north to see two of my children’s families and to be with Annie on the day of her graduation from high school. Her brother is graduating from college this month, too, so the afternoon barbecue was in his honor as well.

In the northern parts of the state winter was having its last fling all the way until Sunday; only a week before, Pippin had to put off her planting on account of snow, and I drove through a thunderstorm on my way up. When one downpour ended, the wind would blow the pine pollen around wildly, so that while Ivy and I lay on the grass birdwatching into the oak tree, a fine yellow blizzard suddenly whirled above and around us.

I stayed at Pippin’s. The morning of the graduation party, before I piled in the van with their family to drive up into Oregon, Ivy and I took a walk down the road and back. We saw strawberry flowers and the carcasses of wild animals, and some strange natural art.

It appeared that the same pine pollen that was plastered all over my car and lay as yellow dust on Pippin’s iris flowers had fallen on a driveway and then been washed by the rain into an intriguing design. We’ve been trying to imagine who or what prepared the asphalt “canvas” beforehand in such a way that the natural events could form these patterns.

Just a bit later, after Ivy had washed her hair for the party, she and Scout showed me their collection of artwork from the past school year. It was hard to choose which of several dozen pieces to take away on my camera, but here is a little gallery:

mermaid and squid
wolf

Bouquet of flowers including book-, pencil- and butterfly-flowers,
in a detailed and highly narrative and symbolic vase.

Self portraits by Ivy; note the pony tail at left.
Klimt style by Scout

And then, Pippin’s picture of the last storm Saturday evening, and Jamie:

 

I’ll be showing you more of nature’s art in another post, but here’s a bit more human artwork — clever and beautiful use of natural wood — which I saw just as I was leaving town to come home. I put my car in reverse and backed up a hundred feet to the side of the road so I could take this picture for Pom Pom especially, but I know there are lots of other art and mushroom lovers out there.

 

They did not turn aside when they went.

One of the readings for Holy Monday is from Ezekiel, a description of what the prophet saw in his vision of creatures and wheels:

…a whirlwind was coming out of the north, a great cloud with raging fire engulfing itself; and brightness was all around it and radiating out of its midst like the color of amber, out of the midst of the fire. Also from within it came the likeness of four living creatures. And this was their appearance: they had the likeness of a man. Each one had four faces, and each one had four wings. Their legs were straight, and the soles of their feet were like the soles of calves’ feet. They sparkled like the color of burnished bronze. The hands of a man were under their wings on their four sides; and each of the four had faces and wings. Their wings touched one another.

The creatures did not turn when they went, but each one went straight forward. As for the likeness of their faces, each had the face of a man; each of the four had the face of a lion on the right side, each of the four had the face of an ox on the left side, and each of the four had the face of an eagle. Thus were their faces. Their wings stretched upward; two wings of each one touched one another, and two covered their bodies.

And each one went straight forward; they went wherever the spirit wanted to go, and they did not turn when they went. As for the likeness of the living creatures, their appearance was like burning coals of fire, like the appearance of torches going back and forth among the living creatures. The fire was bright, and out of the fire went lightning. And the living creatures ran back and forth, in appearance like a flash of lightning.

Now as I looked at the living creatures, behold, a wheel was on the earth beside each living creature with its four faces. The appearance of the wheels and their workings was like the color of beryl, and all four had the same likeness. The appearance of their workings was, as it were, a wheel in the middle of a wheel. When they moved, they went toward any one of four directions; they did not turn aside when they went.

As for their rims, they were so high they were awesome; and their rims were full of eyes, all around the four of them. When the living creatures went, the wheels went beside them; and when the living creatures were lifted up from the earth, the wheels were lifted up. Wherever the spirit wanted to go, they went, because there the spirit went; and the wheels were lifted together with them, for the spirit of the living creatures was in the wheels.

I was interested to see how artists might have rendered these images. Many of the pictures I saw were quite psychedelic, and just as mind-boggling as the descriptions Ezekiel gave. My favorite was this quiet sculpture, detail of an Amiens Cathedral facade which shows only two wheels, and a prophet who might be seen as receiving his vision, or perhaps meditating on the whole of it — which would be impossible to render in stone. The complexity and drama are only hinted at by the way the wheels are interwoven or interweaving.

The church fathers have written that the four living creatures are the cherubim, the guardians of the throne of God. The burning coals are holy men, the lamps signify the light of the gospel, and the wheels signify Holy Scripture; St. Gregory the Great tells us that “the New Testament lay hidden by allegory in the letter of the Old Testament.”

Ezekiel closes his description (beyond this day’s reading) with the words, “This was the vision of the likeness of the Lord’s glory. I saw it, and I fell down on my face….” and God spoke to him, gave him an assignment, and gave him a scroll, saying:

“Son of man, eat this scroll, and go and speak to the children of Israel.” So I opened my mouth, and he fed me the scroll. Then he said to me, “Son of man, your mouth shall eat and your stomach will be filled with this scroll that is given you.” So I ate it, and it was in my mouth as sweet as honey.

My Bible footnotes remind me that the faithful can also know that sweetness that Ezekiel tasted, as the Psalmist sings:

How sweet to my taste are Your teachings.
More than honey and the honeycomb in my mouth.

This probably works best when we love and obey those teachings… Lord, have mercy!

Heal me, O LORD, and I shall be healed;
save me, and I shall be saved:
for thou art my praise.

Jeremiah 17:14