By Christine Sampson
Frederick H. Terry knows what it takes to make a gingerbread house a gingerbread home, and here’s a clue: It’s not perfect icing and fancy candy decorations.
It’s a family that makes a tradition out of decorating gingerbread together year after year during the holidays. It’s the laughter of children creating the candy home of their dreams. It’s the celebration of a recipe that dates back to the 16th century or even earlier, by some accounts.
Terry is the owner of Gingerbread University, a gingerbread decorating center and cookie and candy shop now in its 17th year open in Riverhead. One imagines that stepping into the sunny, delicious-smelling shop — with its life-size Nutcracker soldiers and decorative peppermint candies and lollipops the size of your head, and a soundtrack of tunes from Walt Disney films — is like walking into a much-less-ominous candy house in the Brothers Grimm fairy tale “Hansel and Gretel.” Which, by the way, was either the inspiration for the popularity of gingerbread houses or a product of the houses’ previous popularity, according to a PBS history of gingerbread.
But the long history of gingerbread aside, Terry can trace his family roots on the East End back more than 350 years.
“This really was born out of a very traditional upbringing that was oriented around family activities,” he says. “This is the ultimate family activity, and one of the few endeavors left that is totally participatory by everyone.”
The typical customer experience starts with sitting down at a table, where “ginger elves” (the employees) present you with a plain house, ready to be decorated, and a heaping bowl of candy with two bags of frosting, one white and one colored. Then, you get to work. Help is available if you need it, along with more candy for purchase, if you want it.
Terry’s nickname here at the shop is “Gingerbread Fred,” emblazoned on his signature baseball cap. At Gingerbread University he also goes by “Professor Terry” — a fitting name for someone who was at one point an actual college professor. He lectured at Nassau Community College and the University at Albany for more than 30 years, teaching courses in business and restaurant management.
At one point during an interview, Terry breaks out into song. It’s a song he wrote called “The Gingerbread Ingredient Song.” It’s about how, despite people’s differences on the outside, we’re all made of the same ingredients. It’s safe to say Terry’s personality is reminiscent of a certain jolly character who makes regular appearances this time of year, bringing joy to children wherever he goes.
“I’m very famous among three and four-year-olds,” he says.
He donates a significant portion of Gingerbread University’s profits to The Smile Train, which performs cleft palate surgeries for underprivileged children.
At Gingerbread University — which supplies the houses for Sag Harbor Elementary School’s popular Gingerbread Night, and has a relationship with more than 30 other schools as well — Terry now finds himself welcoming the children of children, now adults, who decorated houses there in the shop’s early days.
“This is my therapy,” he says. “What makes me do this is watching people smile. That’s what it’s about for me — fun. It’s a labor of fun for me.”
Fred’s Five Tips for Decorating Gingerbread Houses
- Be generous with icing. When piping it out to hold candy in place, lay it down to at least a quarter-inch thickness or else the candy won’t hold.
- Squeeze the icing bag from the top down, or else it will seep out the top of the bag and make a mess!
- Ice the roof of your gingerbread house first. For aesthetically pleasing results, the most popular patterns are either a cross-hatch pattern with firm, steady, straight lines, or a pattern of curved, even loops.
- To make “icicles” on the edges of the roof, start with a heavy line first at the edge of the roof and come off of the roof line with a small “smush” of icing, then pull straight down to taper it off.
- Pretzels make great windows!
Children’s Books to Lift Your Spirits
Frederick H. Terry has penned two children’s books, “Gingerbread for All Seasons” and “Big Dan” (illustrated by Anna Fallai), which are about gingerbread children who are feeling different and worried about fitting in. In “Gingerbread for All Seasons,” one young cookie has a crack, and in “Big Dan,” the main character is taller than all the rest of his peers. “They are written to empower children who are feeling imperfect,” Terry says. They all have happy endings. Terry has two more children’s books on the way.