Reliant’s annual charity Gingerbread Contest was held Wednesday night in the Tasting Room at the Dallas Arboretum. Spoiler alert: my friend Sam Murphy and I won, and I have the giant $3,000 check for Bonton Farms sitting at my desk to prove it. I’ll head to South Dallas to drop it off with Daron Babcock shortly. But first, I’ll make a few more casual trips to the office kitchen for “coffee” with it tucked under my arm. “Oh, this little ole thing? I know, it is so weird! I never expected a giant check to do so much for my waistline.”
This result wasn’t expected. Yes, Sam and I recently took the all-day cake decorating class at Cake Carousel in Richardson as research for our January cover feature on 52 things to do in in ’22 (look for it on newsstands at the end of this month). Yes, I sent an annoying number of emails to Chelsi, one of the organizers, to inquire if piping tips, decorating bags, pre-piped pinecones, a cake decorating turntable, and my own supply of rod pretzels were prohibited (they were). And, yes, Sam had created an entire mood board based on the Dutton family’s Yellowstone Ranch from her new favorite TV show.
But we hadn’t even been invited to this rodeo: we were called in as last-minute replacements for D CEO editor Christine Perez, who in turn had been called into service to conduct the Dallas Symphony Orchestra. (That’s another story.)
Back to the Arboretum: Sam was running late, so I nervously started in on the chard and sugar on my own. Reliant had a lovely set-up for the competition. There was a bar in the back and a table of finger sandwiches to keep the contestants fueled up. There were about a dozen tables set up around the room, Great British Baking Show-style, each with an unadorned gingerbread house, a couple of tubs of icing, some marshmallows, and a few handfuls of Rolos and Christmas-colored Hershey’s Kisses.
But the mother lode was at the front, where a long line of tables were covered with a toddler’s Twizzler-fueled dreams of confections galore. I was warned that we could look but not touch. We would have to wait for the green light, and then it would be a free-for-all. Once any supplies were gone, they were gone.
Because we were going with the rustic Montana ranch theme, I was hoping for log-shaped pretzels and graham crackers that could be turned into barn doors. No such luck. I panicked a little, but Sam was steadfast. Dot’s Homestyle twisted pretzels would be a decent substitute, she said. And she had a plan: we would each start on opposite ends of the table and meet in the middle. She’d grab the coconut, chocolate chips, nuts, and seeds; I’d grab all the pretzels, extra icing, and an entire foot-square sheet of Rice Krispies Treats. When go-time was announced, we started running.
It was clear we had one thing right: no one else was going for the seeds and nuts like we were. Or was that a huge mistake? I started to panic again as we poured our armfuls supplies out on our table but quickly turned my focus to the task at hand. Sam was going to work on the front and back of the house, constructing a large stone fireplace with the Rice Krispies Treats and building out an entry porch with an arched portico. I was in charge of the log siding and sunflower seed roof shingles. I nibbled down the twisted pretzel sticks so they’d fit perfectly. We were right on track.
Next miscalculation: I think in my head we had an hour and a half; turned out we had only 45 minutes. Thirty minutes in, I barely had any sunflower seeds on the roof, and my back was killing me. I stretched and glanced around the room. There were colorful houses! Someone had constructed a rooftop Santa sleigh out of candy canes! Roofs were tiled in gumdrops! Two houses were entirely green! There were Rice Krispies snowpeople! We were screwed!
Sam had moved around to the front of the house. She was crafting a Rolo moose/elk/reindeer head to mount over the portico. “Just finish one side of the roof,” she told me. “Do the logo big on the other.” I took a swig of chard and plowed on.
As time started to wind down, the helpers who previously passed by our table with skepticism suddenly saw our theme. “I love that show!” they exclaimed. One offered to bring me more sunflower seeds. “There’s one bag left,” she whispered. “Bring it stat!” I shouted.
With a five-minute countdown, everything came into focus. I piped drippy frosting snow on the roof edges, and Sam started cutting up the remaining Krispies into hay bales. “We need a touch of color!” I yelled as I started grabbing marshmallows and covering them in piped green frosting for little mesquite bushes. Sam built an almond pathway out the back and made it snow with coconut. I suddenly realized we didn’t have a doorknob and stuck one on as time was called. I was covered in sweat and green icing. We had done our best. It couldn’t possibly be enough.
Then came the twist I wasn’t expecting. Each team was supposed to give a little presentation to sell their house and their charity to the judges. Thankfully, in the back of the room, we’d be last. Every participant earned $1,000 for their charity just for participating, but the grand prize winner would get $3,000 for theirs. Sugar was about to get real.
A member of the CBS 11 team, representing the Tara Sawyer Foundation, mentioned that she never had the chance to meet her sister-in-law, Tara, who died after contracting amebic meningoencephalitis while swimming at the family’s lake house (the foundation supports young athletes in need). A member of Cynthia Smoot’s team said that, as a single mother of two children with developmental disabilities, she had personally been the recipient of housing assistance from Community for Permanent Supported Housing, the charity they were representing. A woman with Canine Companions had lost her “ride or die” dog of 14 years just days before.
A brain-eating disease and a dead dog? Come on!
One of the organizers handed me the mike. I mumbled something about how we chose Yellowstone Ranch to represent Bonton Farms because, well, they both have cows, and Kevin Costner and South Dallas are constantly underestimated. And this tiny gingerbread house is like one of the tiny houses in Bonton’s new tiny house village affordable housing concept. And the sunflower seeds are (maybe?) organic like the farm. Or something. I don’t really remember.
Next thing I knew, they were announcing the winner. Bonton Farms! I put my arms in the air and hop-skipped in my shearling clogs up to the front. Someone handed me a giant check; I tried to hide my green frosting-caked fingernails. I couldn’t hide my grin. Dave Forehand, the V.P. of Gardens at the Arboretum said it was the most creative entry he had seen in all his years of judging.
Sure, we’re all winners, thanks to Reliant’s generous donations to all of the represented charities. But I have to say, it was one of my prouder moments in life, even though all credit goes to Sam (and to the judges who somehow saw our vision).
Now it is time to cleanse myself with some intermittent fasting, Beth Dutton-style: “Nothing but coffee and cigarettes til noon, and then I can eat what the [email protected]#$ I want until I start drinking at 6.”
(If you want to show some love for the other worthy designs, go here to vote. The lucky People’s Choice winning charity will get an additional $2,000.)