The Christmas tree for the Purdue Memorial Union arrives Monday. The 30 foot blue spruce will be decorated once it’s in place and a lighting ceremony is set for Tuesday.
While it immediately captures the attention of those walking through the Great Hall, there is another symbol of the season that gets noticed. In the shadow of the giant tree, standing quietly in one corner of the Great Hall is a gingerbread house. The PMU baking staff is in charge of it and Cheri Vaughn, bakery supervisor, leads the effort.
“I love it. I look forward to it every year.”
She’s been doing it since 2002, but it’s never the same, because there’s always a new addition. It started with a gingerbread boy and girl. Last year, it was Santa Claus coming out of the chimney. It’s a bust of Santa this year, similar to the busts of the former Purdue presidents who watch over the house, which is more than just gingerbread.
“It’s a wood house,” Vaughn says. “This is the third year we’ve had this house. Before that, we had just a two-room house. We got some money and added onto the house.”
She does make the gingerbread siding – all 650 pounds of it from scratch. And 300 pounds of Royal icing, which she calls baker’s cement.
“The icing is only egg whites, cream of tartar and powdered sugar. The gingerbread is basic cookie dough. It’s shortening, brown sugar, white sugar, whole eggs, flour and ginger, cinnamon and nutmeg.
“Then we add candy, cookies,” Vaughn says. “Everything on the house will be edible. We don’t want them to eat it, but it will be edible.”
Vaughn doesn’t do it all herself. For the past four years, she’s had student worker Josh Pasterz helping out.
“I love it,” he says as he places pieces of gingerbread on the chimney. “I get paid to come up here and do stuff I did as a kid.”
Pasterz admits not all of the work is fun – specifically patting out the gingerbread into the baking trays.
“That is a very hard job, because it’s painstaking and tedious. Easily, I patted out 100 trays. It’s just hard, because as the gingerbread starts to get dryer, it gets harder and firmer.”
As the pair measures and cuts the gingerbread, spreads the icing, and tapes the pieces in place while the “mortar” dries, those passing by take a look. Carolyn Jones has an upfront seat for the activity at the PMU information desk.
“It certainly is quite an undertaking, because they have to get all of the gingerbread on there, and you can see they’re measuring for windows and things of that sort. Then they have to get all the candy on it and frosting. I have no idea how much frosting it takes, but it must be an incredible amount.”
She doubts most people appreciate all the work that goes into it, but Jones thinks they do admire it when it’s done.
“It’s magic time,” she says. “It really is magic time. And it adds so much to the whole atmosphere here with the big tree.”
For Vaughn, the work does not end after the final piece of candy is applied to the house. She’ll be checking on it daily, performing the usual upkeep and repairs all homeowners do.
“Every year I have to do a lot of work,” she says. “It’s worse after graduation weekend and the Christmas with Santa, when there are a lot of people in the building. But that’s what it’s here for, for people to enjoy it.”
And Vaughn says once it’s down after the semester is over, she’ll begin thinking about what to add next year.