When most people see historic buildings like the Roman Colosseum, the Eiffel Tower and the Parthenon, they think “architectural icon.” But when Methow Valley part-timer Cabby Tennis sees those structures, he thinks “gingerbread!” And to see Cabby’s recent scale-model reconstruction of the National Cathedral is to catch a glimpse into the Tennis family science of gingerbread construction.
With its 396 pieces of handmade gingerbread and 716 windows (made of melted sugar “stained glass” and lit from within), the 1:155 scale gingerbread model of Washington, D.C.’s, “spiritual home for our nation” is true feat of culinary architecture, as well as a tribute to Little Star Montessori School’s late founder, Rayma Hayes.
When Cabby and his wife, Maddy Hewitt, first came to the Methow Valley in the mid-1990s, they met Rayma and John Hayes and “were among the many in the valley lucky to call them friends,” says Cabby. In 2002, Cabby brought the Hayeses a gingerbread scale model of his Mazama cabin, “The Bearclaw,” named for the claw marks the bears have left on the trees around it. After the winter holidays, Rayma (“ever thinking of others,” Cabby says) took the gingerbread cabin to Little Star for her students to see, marvel over, and — yes — dismantle and eat.
Since then, every Christmas spent in the Methow has involved the delivery of a Tennis family gingerbread structure to Little Star, created by Cabby, Maddy and their three children. “If there is anything more fun than making [the structures],” says Cabby, “it is watching and hearing the gleeful rush of kindergarteners as first Rayma, and then following her passing, her fellow teachers, circle the children up for their first look. What magnets are for steel, candy and iced gingerbread are for [kids],” Cabby says.
The Tennis family connects each year’s structure to some travel experience. The Roman Colosseum was inspired by daughter Liza’s study abroad in Italy in 2011. The 2017 Parthenon came from time in Athens. This year’s National Cathedral was in response to a visit to the building and meeting a docent who had written a book about the building.
“But some get chosen just because they might be fun to try,” says Cabby. Like the 2008 Hogwarts Castle, an igloo, the 2014 Eiffel Tower (“the most tortuous to cut,” Cabby says), and the USS Constitution in 2015.
While this is clearly a signature Tennis-Hewitt family project, there have been many hands in the kitchen over the years. Cabby mentions the Wathen, Childs and Eckmann families in particular, as well as Hank’s Harvest Foods (donated No. 10 cans for baking the Leaning Tower of Pisa) and Alpine Welding (forged steel pipe half rounds used to bake Parthenon columns).
Creating a gingerbread masterpiece is no willy-nilly affair at The Bearclaw. First, the selected building must be drafted to scale. Next, workable building plans and cereal box templates are created. A checklist of all templates and number of pieces required is completed. Tools and materials (like the 36 cups of flour used in the National Cathedral) are assembled. And then: mix, chill, cut, bake, assemble, decorate, deliver.
“The systematic approach [mimics] the same process that builders in the valley use,” says Cabby. Although, he concedes, “it’s a rare holiday that does not include a near-all-nighter of cutting boards, rolling, pins, and melted sugar.”
The fact that tiny people at Little Star actually eat the Tennis-Hewitt family gingerbread creations keeps the process pure, says Cabby. “It’s an important and enduring part of this tradition … every part is edible, right down to the hot sugar used to hold it together.” (For those of us unscrupulous enough to, say, slip in a little hot glue gun action when our gingerbread creations are collapsing, it is this aspect of the Tennis family’s construction ethics that is most admirable. Even my chickens wouldn’t eat my own 2018 gingerbread house.)
The process also adheres to some unspoken guiding principles, says Cabby. “Choose a design that features some new challenge or skill. Solve new problems as they arise. Add what you learn this time to the next project. When it is crunch time, lean on the creativity and goodwill of your own kids.”
And ultimately, Cabby says, “design and build with the end in mind: the legacy of the soulful, ever-smiling Rayma Hayes and the teachers and children at Little Star.”