Gingerbread helps tornado victims heal

  • Article by: KIM ODE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 20, 2011 - 8:28 AM

The tornado that swept north Minneapolis last spring damaged hundreds of homes. One homeowner coped with the help of gingerbread and frosting.

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Michael and Marie Porter's Minneapolis home was badly damaged when the May 22 tornado uprooted a walnut tree that crashed through its exterior. Making a gingerbread house became an unexpected healing experience.

Photo: TOM WALLACE, Star Tribune

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Marie Porter happily describes her sense of humor as "twisted," so the idea of making a gingerbread model of her tornado-racked house made perfectly perverted sense.

Months had passed since May 22, when a tornado churned through north Minneapolis, toppling trees, peeling off shingles and upending lives. She'd never forget the sight of someone's roof -- a whole roof -- lying in the street, or the neighbor's metal fence throwing sparks from a live wire draped over its links.

But she'd grappled with the memory of how their majestic walnut tree, had fallen on the house, crumpling the roof and demolishing the deck. Dominos of damage had revealed themselves over time -- the cracks, the leaks, the shards of glass in a room that had been vacuumed again and again -- but repairs were made. Porter, a fearless baker who had faced down bridezillas with bravado, was over it.

"I thought we could have a bit of fun."

She and her husband, Michael, measured and drafted templates of their 1928 bungalow, cut gingerbread dough into walls and dormers, then baked the heck out of it. "I'd never made a gingerbread house before," she said. "I knew we weren't going for cookies."

With a pastry bag of frosting, Porter piped tiny bricks across the walls, then stucco and beams, leaving blank the places where the fallen walnut tree would go. The artistry of destruction started to creep her out a bit, but mostly it was fun, finding the right shade of fruit rollup for the tarp.

She melted sugar and poured it into the window cutouts to look like real glass, and even made extra panes that she then shattered, placing the shards in the "yard" and on the small deck off their upstairs bedroom. Only when she attached two pretzel sticks to the place where tree branches had pierced the stucco did she feel herself shudder.

Needing a break, she climbed the stairs in her real house and -- well, here's how she put it in her blog:

It didn't really shake me up until I walked upstairs. I just vividly remembered ALL. THAT. BROKEN. GLASS. I never thought we'd get it out. It was everywhere, along with plant matter, and broken chunks of vinyl tiles from someone else's house.

And:

There is something insanely surreal about going up the stairs to the bedroom, and seeing a tree sticking in the wall. Like the wall was just ... nothing. I can't even imagine the force that took.

Porter, to her surprise, began to realize that maybe she wasn't over it, after all. Certainly, this baking project wasn't going as planned. Still, she set about sculpting the black walnut tree from modeling chocolate. Again from her blog. www.celebrationgeneration.com:

I remember how excited I was last spring. It was a month or so after we'd moved in, the snow was melting, and I found these weird, wrinkly objects on the ground. I quickly realized that they were black walnuts, and -- OMG THEY CAME FROM OUR TREE. I was so excited. I'd never had a walnut tree. We excitedly researched what to do with the walnuts, and we made plans for all sorts of stuff we'd make with those walnuts.

As she began wrapping the floral wire with the chocolate clay to re-create the tree, the tears started. By the time she laid the trunk over the house, so gently, she was sobbing. Several days later, standing in a kitchen that still is barely functional, Porter said, she finally figured out what had happened.

"I'd cried so much in frustration, and cried from dealing with the city, and cried in anger," she said. "But this was the first time I really cried for what had been lost."

She didn't do much more with the gingerbread house. She'd planned on making the three arborvitae trees that had been uprooted. She wanted to re-create the piles of debris along the side of the house. But she couldn't. She was done. And, maybe, finally, over it.

"I think this actually might be the way to say goodbye to the home," she said. She's not sure when or how they'll actually dispose of the gingerbread, but some moment will present itself.

"For sure, it's not edible," she said. She started to laugh, caught herself, then with a shrug gave in to the joke.

Kim Ode • 612-673-7185

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