Sitting inside the Johnson family's News Haven home, the golden oak dining room table is occupied by layers upon layers of homemade gingerbread of all shapes, colors and sizes. Christmassy red and green candy cover the kitchen counters as frosting is being vigorously whipped into the proper consistency. As Alane rushes from kitchen to dining room, she and her daughter Larissa brainstorm ways to add more detail to their gingerbread house.
This year's Festival of Gingerbread is bittersweet for 17-year-old Snider student Larissa Johnson. She and her family have been participating in the festival since she was a child. Soon, Larissa will be graduating from high school and leaving her competitive gingerbread making life behind her.
That's why this year is huge for Johnson, not only because it's probably her last year competing, but also because she is designing her biggest and most difficult house yet -- a gingerbread replica of the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, 1122 S Clinton St. She is entering in the historical theme category and the individual teen category.
“I've always wanted to do some sort of cathedral or church in Fort Wayne. I've put off the urge to do it over the last few years because it's so difficult. But every time I drive by the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception I think about how beautiful it looks and how it would look great as a gingerbread house,” she said.
For Johnson, making gingerbread houses is all about the creative process. Watching Larissa's mind work as she gazes upon her design is just like watching an architect draw a building with precise lines and angles or witnessing an artist consider material and color in a studio because, well, that is exactly what she has to do.
One of the hardest parts for Larissa is picking what type of house she wants to design. Last year, she designed the Bass Mansion by the University of Saint Francis, but this year she was going for bigger and better.
“It's not just a nice square house anymore with six pieces of gingerbread and your done. There's much more to it,” Alane said. “But we learn new things every year.”
First, the Johnsons hit the Fort Wayne area streets looking at local architecture to create their concept. After much research, they will go over their photos and then create their building blocks out of cardboard cutouts. The cardboard serves as the bones for the design.
Then it's baking time. Naturally, the Johnsons' gingerbread is all homemade, and they even prepare some extra dough for accidents because those always happen.
Once all the gingerbread is baked, it's time to start the detail work. For her design this year, Larissa meticulously piped colored frosting to create wreaths, candles and garland no larger than a dime.
But that's Larissa. She loves the detail work, which is why she decided to try something new this year. She made stained glass out of hard candy and even added lighting inside the house to show off the beautiful colors in the candied glass. She even included the statue of the Mother Mary, which was made by her friend out of air-dry clay.
Then after each piece is detailed, it's time to start hot gluing. Yes, hot gluing because every house needs reinforcement.
While the house has to be made of gingerbread, it does not need to be completely edible. After the hot glue is applied, Larissa begins adding for decorations and details. Typically, Larissa continues to work up until the final minutes before they leave to turn it in. Then it's loaded into the family's minivan and delivered to The History Center.
At 7 p.m. the Friday before the Festival of Gingerbread, Larissa bids goodbye to her house and waits for the results on Sunday afternoon.
She is no stranger to winning either. She has many Festival of Gingerbread awards under her belt, but that's not why Larissa or the Johnsons participate. Her younger brothers, 15-year-old Jared and 11-year-old Austin, took part in assisting Alane and her husband Nick in a family category submission, too. For the Johnsons, the Festival of Gingerbread is not about winning -- it's about the long family tradition and a way to bring the family together each and every year.
“My husband asked me the other day why we keep on doing this, I thought for a minute and said because it's what we do every year!” Alane said.