The sweet taste and aroma of gingerbread has become as much a part of the holiday season as a tree, decorations, and gift giving. And after 32 years, the annual Gingerbread Gallery at the Erie Canal Museum, 318 Erie Blvd. E., in downtown Syracuse has become a true holiday destination for area families, giving all ages a place to enjoy quality time together surrounded by the gingerbread treats of the season.
“Thousands of families from all around Central New York come visit the Gingerbread Gallery as part of their holiday celebrations,” explained museum executive director Natalie Stetson. “We love being a part of family traditions in this way.”
She said they hear a lot of “ooohhh” and “aaahhh” exclamations as visitors look over the gallery. Many families visit the Gingerbread Gallery as part of their holiday tour of seeing the tree in Clinton Square, ice skating, or going to the Festival of Trees at the Everson Museum.
“We also hear a lot of people say that they come with their children or grandchildren every year or maybe they used to bring their children, and now they bring their grandchildren,” Stetson said. “The Gingerbread Gallery has been happening long enough now that it spans generations.”
Stetson said she has been involved in the event since 2010. She enjoys watching the kids as they get older, and seeing what they come up with each season with their gingerbread craftwork. New gingerbread architects come out every year, as well as new sponsors, and this year there is added focus on the Erie Canal bicentennial, Stetson said.
“Our bakers create incredible things that you’ve got to see to believe, but my favorites are always the ones inspired by the canal,” she said. “I just love seeing the creativity. And it’s easier than people think. Since the canal has been around for about 200 years, there are so many canal-inspired options out there.
“Everything we do here should tie into our mission in some way. Showcasing the only remaining weighlock building in the United States, the Erie Canal Museum collects and preserves canal material and provides engaging educational experiences that champion an appreciation and understanding of the Erie Canal’s transforming effects on the past, present, and future. The Gingerbread Gallery fits in by providing an engaging experience within the walls of the weighlock building.”
The annual Gingerbread Gallery began humbly in 1986 as a single-day gingerbread auction, growing in popularity to now boasting six weeks of gingerbread fun. There are more than 30 gingerbread creations from baker artisans of all ages this year, and numerous special events to enhance the sweet festivities of the season.
The gingerbread preparations begin in mid-September, when a “call for bakers” goes out and they look for sponsorships, Stetson said. Building the village and decorating the gallery for the holidays takes a full two weeks. Stetson noted the storefronts are stored in the museum’s basement in the offseason, and getting them up to the second-floor Weighlock Gallery is “a fun adventure all on its own.”
She lamented the recent death of longtime maintenance worker Rick Miczek, who assisted in the annual setup. “We figured it out with help from interns and volunteers, but there definitely was a learning curve. We really miss Rick every day. In fact, we’ve dedicated this 32nd annual Gingerbread Gallery to Rick and all that he did at the Erie Canal Museum.”
Gingerbread creations start arriving two weeks before the gallery opens, so the crafters start working on them in October, and the space is adorned that week with lights and ornaments and other festive holiday decorations. The week before opening day on Monday, Nov. 20, they place the creations in the storefront windows and display cases, hang sponsorship signage, make the gallery map, check the lighting on all displays, and finish their final touches.
“By the time people start arriving on opening day, the space feels — and smells! — like a festive holiday canalside village,” Stetson said.
Their grand opening gala is Friday, Nov. 24, 5 to 9 p.m., and features a festive evening of cookies, hot cocoa and the lively music of Merry Mischief following the tree lighting at Clinton Square. At the top of each hour, 50 free “Ice Skating on the Erie Canal” posters will be given away.
Children’s Gingerbread Workshops will take place Saturday, Dec. 9, and Thursday, Dec. 28, at 11 a.m. and 1 p.m., giving youngsters the chance to build their own gingerbread house using milk cartons, Graham crackers, icing, and other edible delectables. Admission is $12; preregistration is required to make sure there are ample supplies for the kids.
A Gingerbread Paint & Sip on Thursday, Dec. 14, 5 to 8 p.m., will give guests who are 21 and older a unique social environment to build a gingerbread house while enjoying live music and a cash bar. Admission is $15.
The All Star Band Holiday Concert on Saturday, Dec. 16, 11 a.m., features favorite holiday tunes performed by the Stan Colella All Star Band under the direction of Joe Carello. This free event is held in the first-floor gallery of the museum.
Stetson said that although a larger percentage of tourists visits the museum the rest of the year, more than 50 percent of its local attendance comes between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day.
“One of the most fun ways to get a new audience in for the Gingerbread Gallery is by hosting gingerbread house workshops for nursery schools,” she said. “Families from Syracuse, Liverpool, Baldwinsville, and East Syracuse come experience the museum, and see it as a fun place that they can bring their families back to throughout the year. I also love the surprise of seeing what our creative bakers came up with. We get such wonderful and original things every year that really amaze me. Last year, we had an all-edible snow globe that was amazing and a quilting group built a beautiful quilt-inspired canal boat.”
Stetson also gave kudos to the volunteers who make the Gingerbread Gallery the stuff of memories for so many Central New York families. “We couldn’t do this without their help, and it is always wonderful to see them and catch up. We have the best volunteers!”
The Gingerbread Gallery runs from Nov. 20 through Jan. 7, daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., except for Dec. 24 and 31 from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. The museum is closed Dec. 25 and Jan. 1. Admission is $2 for children, $5 for seniors, and $7 for adults. For more information, call (315) 471-0593 or visit eriecanalmuseum.org/gingerbread.
Likely in answer to many a visitor’s question, Turning Stone Resort and Casino executive chef Dennis Miller says yes, the thousands of individual pieces that create the annual Gingerbread Village are indeed 100 percent edible. And when the village returns to the Winter Garden on Monday, Nov. 20, he and his own group of pastry-making elves will have worked nearly since they took down last year’s village to create their latest gingerbread artistry.
“To be an authentic gingerbread village, all of the decorations and landscaping need to be edible, so we start planning almost a year in advance,” Miller said. “Our team spends more than 2,200 hours on the Gingerbread Village, including sketching out our designs, baking the gingerbread and all of the detailed decorating with icing and a lot of candy.”
The Gingerbread Village has been ranked by the Forbes Travel Guide alongside venues like the Ritz-Carleton, Mandarin Oriental and The Broadmoor as one of the best gingerbread attractions in the country for the last few years; Forbes correspondent Jaydine Sayer complimented the village as “picture-perfect” in the 2015 review. Each Travel Guide notice has complimented Miller and his crew specifically for their attractive display.
Miller, who has worked on the Gingerbread Village for four years, said he has a team of 30 employees in the pastry department working on building, baking, and decorating the village this year. The new Gingerbread Village will be 70 feet in length and features nine towering buildings including a bakery, a Tudor-style home, a church, a barn, and a train depot with an actual moving train, Miller said, plus ice skating rinks and beautiful landscaping. This year, they’ve added even more detail than ever to the landscaping and areas surrounding the village.
They enjoy the village as much as their fans, Miller admitted, because making the candy buildings is like a childhood dream come true. “We had fun taking a journey back to our childhood when we dreamed about houses, buildings, trees and roads being made from candy,” Miller said. “And we hope it’s nostalgic for our guests, too.”
This year’s sprawling village scene is made from 500 pounds of gingerbread dough, 2,045 pounds of icing and more than 750 pounds of candy, Miller added.
The holiday celebration begins on Monday, Nov. 20, 6 p.m., with Turning Stone’s annual Tree Lighting Ceremony. The gala will include the arrival of Santa Claus, Mrs. Claus and their elves, who will pose for photos with their guests and hear their wish lists. The festivities will also feature the grand opening of the 2017 Gingerbread Village, which will then be open every day through the end of the holiday season.
Constructing the popular resort attraction is something the resort’s pastry department enjoys, especially in the challenge of trying to improve on the display year after year. “It’s an annual tradition here and something our guests really enjoy and look forward to every year,” Miller said. “Our team has a lot of fun with the Gingerbread Village and we keep thinking of new ways to outdo ourselves. Watching our guests’ enjoyment as they walk through the village is what it’s all about for us.”
And although the gingerbread is all edible, Miller doesn’t actually recommend taking a bite when the display is taken down. “With more than 500 pounds of gingerbread, we have to start our baking in the summer, so the gingerbread is pretty old by the time we dismantle everything in January,” Miller said. “The only safe thing to do is throw it away.”
Admission to see the Gingerbread Village is free. Visitors arriving on Fridays and Saturdays from Nov. 24 through Dec. 23 will also enjoy live holiday entertainment in the Winter Garden.
In other holiday celebrations, Turning Stone will be hosting their annual Thanksgiving Dinner on Thursday, Nov. 23, with a traditional buffet and live entertainment in their conference center. Seatings are every 30 minutes from 11 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Adults are $42, children 6 to 15 are $22, and kids 5 and younger are free. Call (315) 771-7711 for information.
The Claus couple will return for the weekly Breakfast with Santa and Friends every Saturday from Nov. 25 through Dec. 23 at Turning Stone’s Season’s Harvest Buffet for a meal and photo taking. Times are 7:30 to 9 a.m. and 9:15 to 11 a.m. Admission is $14.95 for adults, $9.95 for children from age 5 to 12, and free for younger kids. Reservations are recommended.
Holiday gift shoppers will find unique items to purchase during the Christmas and Crafts event at the Event Center on Saturday, Nov. 25, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., and Sunday, Nov. 26, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., with more than 135 artisan exhibitors and commercial vendors offering all kinds of handcrafted holiday décor, gourmet specialty holiday foods, artisan jewelry, designer fashions, and home accessories. Live entertainment will enhance the festivities all weekend. Admission is $6 for adults, $4 for ages 55 and up and military, $2 for ages 5 to 12, and free for ages 4 and under.
For more information on the resort, located off Thruway Exit 33 in Verona, including a full list of holiday live performances, visit turningstone.com. SNT