Melissa Parrino has many niches, but her daughter, Katie Guitreau, who works at the LSU AgCenter’s Botanic Gardens, agrees that baking is one of them. It goes a little deeper than just baking, though.
Parrino builds gingerbread houses, and fairly elaborate ones at that.
This year, as part of a group gingerbread-house-making workshop held at Guitreau’s workplace, Parrino created a foot-high edible replica of a Burden property building known as the Orangerie — a former citrus greenhouse now used by the Botanic Gardens for events.
The nonprofit organization recently renovated its kitchen, and Parrino admits she offered to teach the workshop partly because of the new kitchen space.
“It’s so much roomier than my kitchen at home,” she said, nodding at the piles of candy of every possible shape, flavor and description that littered the kitchen island, along with long sheets of baked gingerbread.
“As you can see, this can take up a lot of room,” she said.
Not to mention time. In reality, after the baking is done, you can have a house constructed and decorated inside a couple of hours.
But as Guitreau, who follows in her mother’s footsteps when it comes to perfectionism, points out, “there’s always a little bit more you can do.”
Parrino has been decorating and giving her houses as gifts during the holidays for decades, going back to her days as a cafeteria manager at Magnolia Woods Elementary school.
“I’d bake the gingerbread in the ovens at school, but I’d wait to put it together and decorate it until the kids were in the lunchroom. It became something to look forward to, for the students and for me,” she said. Each year, she would make a couple and, on the last day before Christmas break, give away the houses to students chosen in a random drawing. “They waited for gingerbread time,” she said.
When she later moved to a middle school, she continued the tradition, but she used it as a means to make sure no one moved to the “naughty” list in the lunchroom. “I’d tell them they would only be in the drawing if they behaved themselves.”
When she stopped working in the cafeteria, however, she kept making gingerbread houses, mostly for family or for special organizations. She makes houses to take to pediatric units in hospitals, and she made a replica of her favorite spot in Colorado and of her daughter’s vacation home.
Even her mistakes turn out well. A droopy roof on one of her practice houses became a haunted house that she donated to United Way for Halloween.
More importantly, it’s helped her get through some scary moments: Parrino has breast cancer.
“I can’t call myself a ‘survivor,’ technically, because I still have cancer in my body. But I am living with breast cancer, and I get tired. I can’t do all the things I used to do, at least not yet. I’m working back to those things, but for now, this is something that doesn’t take a lot of strength, and I love it.
“It’s a great creative outlet,” she said. “You’d be surprised what you can re-create out of candy,” adding that one of her gingerbread students came up with an idea she’s never seen before in a couple of decades of gingerbread construction — a sleigh using a slab of gingerbread with two small candy canes as runners.
“It never gets old, because you can improve upon your ideas every year,” she said.
Francine Lee heard about the class and decided it was a perfect chance to take a break from the hustle of the holidays. She brought along her friend Paula Mercer, who decorated her own house using a slightly different roofing technique that included cross-hatching the roof with a grid pattern and the round candies.
“It’s very relaxing,” Lee said, adding coin-shaped candies to the roof of her gingerbread house, carefully coating each piece with the icing that serves as glue. “It’s getting me into the spirit of the season.”
Parrino hopes to continue the gingerbread workshops every year at Christmas at the Botanic Gardens.