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Gingerbread is back: Sweet replica returns to Capitol

Things may be frantic in Congress, but at least it smells good

The U.S. Capitol gingerbread house is wheeled into place by the Memorial Door in the Capitol on Monday.
The U.S. Capitol gingerbread house is wheeled into place by the Memorial Door in the Capitol on Monday. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

A warm and spicy scent has returned to the halls of Congress, after a last-minute dash to fit it through the doors.

When the fifth annual gingerbread replica of the Capitol debuted Monday, it was the end of a long journey for chef Fred Johnson. Last year, he livestreamed the replica from his basement during the height of the pandemic, complete with masked gingerbread people. This year, he brought the tradition back to the Hill, with face coverings absent on the candied lawn but still going strong inside the cookie walls.

“I wanted [masks] to be part of the design, and looking back at it, really remember that this was the time when we were under a pandemic,” Johnson said. “It’s not meant to be anything other than just fun and reality.”

The sugary structure was installed Monday morning on the first floor of the Capitol, near the Memorial Door entrance and a bust of Abraham Lincoln, but not without its share of drama. 

Johnson and his crew ran into a logistical challenge as they wheeled the creation through the maze of tunnels under the Capitol complex — width. The replica, balanced on rolling carts, was too wide to fit through one of the doors between Longworth and the Cannon tunnel, and was forced to take a detour.

During the tricky transport, disaster was narrowly averted on a ramp at the end of the Cannon tunnel, when one cart fell over. At one point before the cart collapse, a replica of the Statue of Freedom fell from the delicious diorama, but it was ultimately restored to its perch atop the icing-covered dome.

Fred Johnson, who supervises food operations in the House, replaces the Statue of Freedom on the dome of the U.S. Capitol gingerbread house after the statue fell off in transit Monday. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

This year’s design — slightly smaller than years past but still about 5 feet long and 3 feet tall — features a couple of nutcrackers and gingerbread people sledding down the slick hills outside the Capitol decorated with royal icing and dusted with crystallized sugar. Festive trees and other cheery holiday embellishments round out the scene.

Johnson said he finished the construction in record time this year. As supervisor of food operations for the House of Representatives, he worked alone in his Maryland home’s kitchen last year and streamed his holiday creation online from its location in his basement. 

It felt good to be back in the well-equipped House kitchens and have some help from his staff, Johnson said.

“I’ve been working on it aggressively, but I got it out in two days,” he said. “I think I’m getting better at it.”

Johnson said he’s thrilled to have his fake Capitol back in the real Capitol. After another pandemic year for the congressional community that saw a riot and partisan rancor hit a fever pitch, it’s a slight injection of normalcy. 

During the Jan. 6 riot, for instance, Johnson and his fellow employees sprang into action, making over 500 meals for the locked-down members and staff in hiding during the hours after a pro-Trump mob broke into the building.

But you wouldn’t know all that just by looking at his creation — and that’s the point, Johnson said.

“I want to get away from it,” he said. “My gingerbread house project is always a positive, cheery, happy place.”

Johnson discovers the cart for the Capitol gingerbread house is too wide to fit through the doors to the Cannon tunnel. Another route was found. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Johnson said he and members of his staff like to occasionally sit down by the replica, quietly watching the joy it brings people, especially those who are in the Capitol for the first time.

Fewer people will smell the gingerbread this year, since the building is still closed to the general public over coronavirus and security concerns, with only visitors on official business allowed. But Johnson said he has hope for the future.

“I remember what it was like in 2019, with all the tour groups. Just the shock — they see this thing and they’re like, ‘Oh, wow,’ and it just put smiles on their faces,” he said. “That’s what I’m looking forward to — maybe that’ll be year six, we’ll see.”

Bill Clark contributed to this report.

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