Good morning. It’s Friday. Today we’ll look at buildings and streets that smell as good as they look. We’ll also learn the secrets of an 18-foot evergreen in Central Park that’s not just a Christmas tree.
At left, Nishat Shahabuddin’s salute to her family’s neighborhood in Jackson Heights, Queens. At right, “Brooklyn Icons.”Credit…Brad Farwell/Museum of the City of New York
The 20-plus entrants in a holiday contest became small-scale architects, structural engineers and construction workers, but they did not need hard hats, bricks or mortar. Our colleague Rose Adams explains:
In a roomful of carefully designed contest entries, you might recognize the main NewYork-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center building. Inspired by a 14th-century French palace, its many wings surround a tower that’s adorned with Gothic arches.
Only this version is made of gingerbread. Sonia Debek, a cancer researcher at Weill Cornell Medicine, spent nights and days off recreating the hospital. She baked footlong slabs of gingerbread for the walls and made windows out of caramelized corn syrup and sugar. Her building is sealed and coated with at least five cups of royal icing. Whipping the icing by hand was like an extra gym membership, she said.
Debek’s replica is one of 23 gingerbread creations featured in “Gingerbread NYC: The Great Borough Bake-Off,” an exhibition at the Museum of the City of New York through Jan. 15. The museum asked professional and amateur bakers to submit gingerbread designs that resembled “icons” across New York City.
They turned 685 pounds of gingerbread and more than 160 pounds of royal icing into everything from theater marquees to baseball stadiums. Some entrants reproduced famous landmarks like 30 Rockefeller Plaza and the Brooklyn Bridge, but others recreated buildings that were meaningful to them.
Debek, who moved to New York from Poland in the summer, decided to recreate the only building she knew well: the hospital complex across the street from the laboratory where she works.
“That was the building I was the most fond of,” she said.
Nishat Shahabuddin, an orthodontist, also chose a place with personal significance. She spent about 100 hours in her parents’ kitchen building a replica of 74th Street in Jackson Heights, an area she frequented as a child. Her model (at left in the photo above) includes real stores alongside imaginary ones that reflect her Bangladeshi heritage.
Like many of the exhibit’s structures, her streetscape almost didn’t survive a few humid days in November.
“Humidity is the nemesis, the kryptonite, of gingerbread houses,” said Stephanie Hill Wilchfort, the museum’s director.
But by placing stacks of graham crackers inside some of her buildings, Shahabuddin was able to keep her roofs intact. Other bakers used Rice Krispies treats as internal reinforcements and melted gummy bears as cement.
With the right recipe and under dry conditions, gingerbread gets sturdier with time. “You overbake it just slightly,” said Arlene Chua, whose display depicts Historic Richmond Town in Staten Island. “I actually have a gingerbread house that’s two years old.”
The museum assembled a panel of famous bakers, including Bobbie Lloyd, the chief executive of Magnolia Bakery. They judged the creativity, durability and realism of each entry and gave the “best overall” award to Patty Pops, a Pelham-based bakery whose replica of a Bronx building honored the 50th anniversary of hip-hop.
A few of the amateur bakers also took home awards. The prizes, said Wilchford, were “bragging rights.”
But no matter how tempting the displays looked, no one could take a bite — not even the judges.
“There’s no eating the gingerbread,” Wilchford said. “No gingerbread was harmed in this process.”
It will be sunny with temperatures reaching the high 30s. In the evening, temperatures will remain steady in the low 30s.
In effect until Dec. 25 (Christmas Day).
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More than a Christmas tree
There’s a tree in Central Park that many people assume is only a Christmas tree. It’s more than that.
It’s an 18-foot evergreen — a white cedar — that glitters with hundreds of laminated photos, ornaments and notes to deceased pets. It’s a public display of love for friends who were furry, fuzzy or finned — the Pet Memorial Christmas Tree.
There’s Milo, remembered as “a Good Boy.” There are Sherman the Eastern box turtle, Geo the fish and Miss Parker, the “fearless, independent, and amusing” Central Park squirrel.
It is decorated every year by a “keeper of the tree” and volunteers and is on display between Thanksgiving and Three Kings Day in January, when the volunteers take down the mementos and save them for the next holiday season. Dozens of new ones arrived last week when a group led by the Central Park NYC chapter of Ever Walk, a group that promotes walking, hiked through the Ramble to the tree.
As our colleague Aimee Ortiz noted, its location was kept secret for decades and remains largely unknown. You have to know where to look, or you have to come across it by chance — as the person who christened it did.
It already had decorations in 1986 when the casting director Jason Reddock noticed it while walking his golden retriever, Beau. In an account of the tree and its history, the writer and photographer Larry Closs said that Reddock and Beau had gone back the next day, this time with the actress Nicki Gallas and her toy poodle, Gittel.
“Nicki noticed what Jason had noticed — ‘There are dog toys on that tree!’ — and was similarly charmed,” Closs wrote.
They went back the day after that with ornaments of their own. “Since the tree was an evergreen, and since Christmas was only weeks away, the pair decided it was a Christmas tree and thus the Pet Memorial Christmas Tree was born,” Closs wrote.
The current keeper of the tree, Marianne Larsen, took over the role from Reddock about five years ago. She said part of the joy was in discovering the tree.
“You’ll walk by and go, ‘What’s that?’” she said, standing at the tree with her dog Ulla. “And if they take a moment to go in, they’ll see that it’s a memorial tree, because some people think it’s just a celebratory Christmas tree.”
A group of people were standing on a corner in the Flatiron district, all looking up toward a tall old building.
I asked a young woman in the crowd what everyone was looking at.
I don’t know! she said.
I asked a middle-aged man standing nearby the same question.
I have no idea, he said.
Both of them kept looking up.
— Felice Aull
Illustrated by Agnes Lee. Send submissions here and read more Metropolitan Diary here.
I’ll be off next week, so happy holidays. See you here in 2024. — J.B.
P.S. Here’s today’s Mini Crossword and Spelling Bee. You can find all our puzzles here.
Melissa Guerrero and Ed Shanahan contributed to New York Today. You can reach the team at [email protected].