For the last 47 holiday seasons, intricate gingerbread displays have filled the White House’s State Dining Room, leaving many in awe of and hunger for their delectable beauty. This year, an estimated 68,000 visitors will pass by the 500-pound dark chocolate masterpiece designed by Executive Pastry Chef Susan Morrison.
Even though the tasty constructions are for viewing only, not even presidents have been able to resist the smells of gingerbread, chocolate, and sugar, says Roland Mesnier, the White House’s executive pastry chef from 1979 to 2004, plus a brief return in 2006, and designer of 16 official holiday displays. A few former commanders-in-chief were even caught stealing nibbles.
“I remember Bill Clinton doing it in particular,” says Mesnier, who recently published a book about his White House gingerbread displays.
The earliest known recipe for gingerbread dates back about 4,000 years from ancient Greece. The Greeks spread the delicacy throughout Europe and into China, which had long harvested ginger for its medicinal properties. By the Renaissance, gingerbread cookies were a favorite Western snack, often shaped like animals, armor, and people. Gingerbread houses themselves are believed to have originated in 16th-century Germany. Along with the thousands of European colonists, gingerbread migrated to North America in the 17th and 18th centuries, and quickly became a staple of colonial and early republic diets. Mary Ball Washington, mother of George, reputedly served it to the Marquis de Lafayette when he visited her in Fredericksburg; it also appears in the first known American cookbook, Amelia Simmons’ 1797 American Cookery.
But gingerbread houses didn’t hit the executive mansion in any official capacity for almost another two centuries, when the first official White House gingerbread house went on display in 1969. Built by Assistant Executive Chef Hans Raffert at the behest of First Lady Patricia Nixon, the house copied a simple German A-frame design. As the years went on, the houses became more elaborate, intricate and complex with Raffert adding hard candies, candy canes, and jelly beans.
Mesnier started as the White House’s pastry chef in 1979, but didn’t take over gingerbread house duties until 1992.
“When I started at the White House, the first thing [Raffert] told me was that the ‘Gingerbread House was mine. Hands off!,’ ” Mesnier says. When Mesnier took over the responsibility after Raffert’s retirement, he decided to veer away from tradition and blow it up into a complete village scene with hills, houses, reindeer, elves, and even a miniature marzipan replica of First Lady Barbara Bush carrying cookies to her grandchildren. Bush, he says, “loved it because it was different than what they had seen in the past.”
Over 26 years in the White House, Mesnier constructed 16 gingerbread houses, many of which borrowed from the lives of contemporary White House residents. The 1996 house, designed with a Nutcracker theme, featured a pink sugar figurine resembling Chelsea Clinton. A 2003 house created for former librarian Laura Bush featured recreations of Winnie-the-Pooh, The Very Hungry Caterpillar, and The Cat in the Hat.
But Mesnier says his favorite might be the 1993 house built for the Clintons’ first White House Christmas. The “House of Socks” was a scale replica of the White House dominated by the family’s pet cat. Mesnier paired the gingerbread house with 22 marzipan cats scattered around the display. “The fun part was for people to discover the cats,” he says.
The process of designing and constructing a several-hundred-pound gingerbread display begins several months before the holidays when the First Lady decides the year’s Christmas theme. (Mesnier sometimes consulted with professional architects to make sure his houses were to-scale with the actual White House.) Construction begins in early fall with the hand-sculpting of the marzipan figurines, while the gingerbread baking starts in November. Mesnier estimates that it took his five-person team “at least 250 hours” to make a White House gingerbread house and another four days to assemble one.
Mesnier picked up lots of tricks to gingerbread construction over his time at the White House.
“Gingerbread is like a sponge,” he says. “If you glue the house with icing, the icing will crack and, eventually, will crumble down. This is why I decided to go with chocolate for glue.”
Because everything in a successful gingerbread house needs to edible, Mesnier recommends jamming leftover pieces of chocolate-covered gingerbread into corners to stabilize the structures. And they actually have to taste good. “There will always be people who will break a little piece and taste, and I don’t want them to be shocked by how bad it is,” he says.
Mesnier still makes gingerbread houses 11 years after leaving the White House pastry kitchen. He made his largest one yet this year, the White House Historical Association’s exhibit White House Gingerbread: Holiday Traditions which is on display at the Decatur House until December 22.