The Museum of the City of New York (MCNY) is trying out a different type of exhibition this year, and it looks delicious. Gingerbread NYC: The Great Borough Bake-Off, up through January 16, features seven bakers’ edible replicas of New York City’s five boroughs (the Bronx, Brooklyn, Manhattan, Queens, and Staten Island).
“I can speak from personal experience about how difficult it is,” said Jonah Nigh, one of the competition’s judges and a semifinalist on the reality show Baking It, where he was asked to create a gingerbread house. “You can measure everything as much as you want, but when you put it in the oven, you have no control over how much it shrinks and expands,” he added, echoing the frustration of many of the museum’s contestants.
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Nigh told Hyperallergic he especially enjoyed Sans Bakery’s miniature of Long Island City, Queens. “I love really small details,” Nigh gushed, adding that it was so transformed it no longer looked gingerbread. That project belonged to Erica Fair, who has run the gluten-free bakery since 2010. She wanted to represent the iconic parts of her neighborhood and decided to recreate the seven line subway car, the iconic Silvercup film studio, and the graffiti visible below as people cross the East River from Manhattan.
The baker explained that weather plays an outsized role in the success of the fickle medium: She initially planned to make her work twice as big, but her original house broke in half during the city’s early November heat wave. For her final product, Fair used Pez candies as bricks and mixed luster with vodka (it evaporates quicker than water) as paint. She also built a few Christmas trees with gummy bears.
John Kuehn represented Manhattan and won the contest’s “grandest” prize. He had never made a gingerbread house before, but had worked as an architect, and his expertise is evident in the final product, a replica of Midtown’s Madison Square Park. Kuehn’s final version includes carefully constructed miniatures of the Flatiron Building and the Metropolitan Life Insurance Tower. He started working in early October and said that he spent around eight hours a day on the project until it was due before the judges in early November.
“It was challenging,” said Kuehn who was able to mitigate a potential out-of-oven collapse crisis by forgoing butter and adding extra flour and spices to produce a sturdier final product.
The bake-off and exhibtion are a new initiative for the East Harlem museum, but one that will likely become a tradition, according to MCNY Chief Operating Officer Jerry Gallagher. The museum put out a call for both professional bakers and amateurs across the city and assembled an impressive team of judges. In addition to Nigh, the deciding panel comprised Bobbie Lloyd, who runs Magnolia Bakery; Nadine Orenstein, a drawings and prints curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art who also serves as a judge for the annual National Gingerbread House Competition; painter-turned-baker Colette Peters, who designs elaborate cakes and teaches decorating with her namesake Colette’s Cakes in New Jersey; Melba Wilson, who owns the popular Melba’s Restaurant in Harlem; and Amy Scherber, at the helm of Manhattan’s beloved Amy’s Bread for 30 years.
All seven displays won distinctions ranging from “most resilient” to “best overall,” the first of which was awarded to L’Appartement 4F Bakery’s recreation of a Brooklyn brownstone, which partially collapsed soon before it was set to be judged. The “best overall” award went to Sherry Kozlowski’s depiction of buildings in Astoria, Queens.
Now, the seven gingerbreads — two of Queens, two of Brooklyn, and one each of Manhattan, the Bronx, and Staten Island — are on view at the museum.
“The minute you walk into the room you’re hit with it,” Nigh said about the distinctive sweet scent of the room. “You can’t really appreciate the work or the scale of it until you see it up close.”