To say gingerbread pairs well with the holidays is an understatement for Gail Wells, who hasn’t celebrated a single Christmas in 33 years without building at least one gingerbread house.
Gingerbread is a holiday staple for the Monticello Middle School math teacher. She has taught community gingerbread classes, judged house-making competitions and even sent her own houses as far as Afghanistan, Bosnia and South Korea. Her husband designs special packaging for the treats so they arrive in one piece.
“There is a little bit of frosting that crumbles a bit, but they are in great shape when they arrive. They even come with an electric light on the inside,” said her son Jason Wells, who has received four houses while stationed abroad in the army. “It’s such a highlight for the soldiers I’ve been deployed with because there is such a connection to Christmas. When you are away from home, to have something like that is a really special thing.”
This year, his mother will send the “Wells Auto Shop” gingerbread garage to Miami, where her son will share it with his children.
“My kids look forward to it. In fact, my 2-year-old daughter saw a picture of a gingerbread man at home the other day and said, ‘Grandma,’ because she associates gingerbread with grandma,” Jason Wells said.
It was a family tradition Gail Wells, 66, stumbled upon by chance.
“My college degree is in vocational home economics...and I have an emphasis in foods and nutrition, so I’ve always been interested in cooking and foods,” she said. “I think that’s where the interest began initially.”
She said she started collecting gingerbread recipes and patterns in college, putting them into a special file in case she ever decided to make one. She took the plunge in 1985, using a pattern she’d found in a magazine to build an edible log cabin.
The next year, she made two houses. She delivered the second house to her parents, who have received one of her gingerbread creations each year since.
In the last three decades, Gail Wells has built gingerbread structures of all kinds: Egypt’s Sphinx, a travel trailer, bird houses, tents and traditional Victorian houses are among her creations.
“There are only two absolutes for every house I make: Everything is 100 percent edible and there must be a Christmas tree inside,” Gail Wells said.
By the time her children were teenagers, gingerbread was firmly linked to Christmas family traditions.
“One of my kids came home from school one day in high school, and I had been baking gingerbread that day, and he walked in, took a deep breath and said, ‘Mom it smells like Christmas.’...I didn’t realize it at the time, but because we did it year after year, it became important to my children,” she said.
For her daughter Laura Wells, gingerbread has always felt like a normal part of the holiday season. She said it wasn’t until she was an adult that she understood how meaningful the houses were.
“I realized in my adulthood that it’s not a normal thing to have a master gingerbread architect in the family,” Laura Wells said. “It seemed so normal growing up, but it’s not normal. It’s a special family tradition.”
The family often uses their mother’s gingerbread houses to celebrate big life events.
In 1996, to commemorate her son’s graduation from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, Gail Wells designed a gingerbread replica of the Commandant’s house. Last summer, she sent him a gingerbread structure to celebrate his promotion.
“It was a tent that looked exactly like one of the tents I lived in in Afghanistan...and it had a gingerbread Humvee parked in front,” Jason Wells said. “She really puts thought into making something unique we can really tie into that specific year...It’s really special, and I remember the houses she’s sent based on the year.”
Gail Wells said she enjoys the challenge of using frosting, candy and gingerbread to construct an edible structure that resembles real buildings. Some of her replicas include the Rutherglen Mansion, the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln and her childhood home.
“Last year making my childhood home, that was very, very special,” Gail Wells said. “And to be able to take it to my parents’ home...and having my family who knows that house as a center of family occasions be able to share it, it was just very special.”
A testament to her skill, the gingerbread rendition of the Longview Public Library she made in 2000 sold at a holiday auction for $125.
Gail Wells doesn’t have plans for giving up her gingerbread hobby any time soon. The last line in her scrapbook documenting her first 30 years of houses jokingly states, “The next 30 years, available in hardcover, 2045.”
“The older I get, I think I may slow down,” she said. “But I’ll always make them... It just intrigued me always how you could make a house you can eat.”