Just walking into the halls of the Mohonk Mountain House has always been a transformative, transportive experience for me, and one that is…how shall I say…not inconsistent with the holiday spirit. Let’s keep the plush Victorian syntax flowing here, because one thing of which Mohonk reminds us is that the Old World’s notions of extravagance and luxury are austere if not ascetic by today’s standards of aquarium archways and pleasures that my body wouldn’t even understand. In this age, one pays a premium for smaller portions and stiff-backed William Morris chairs. (This, by the way, is not a reference to Mohonk’s extraordinary dinner buffet. Hardly. You’ll be on your own there.)
Quaker and abstemious old Mohonk has had a bar for years now; and, for many years before that, it had a winking little “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy regarding private intoxication in consenting adults. The bar itself is a holiday of golden lights. It foregrounds the local, the small-batch, the boutique, the cocktail mixer who knows her craft and likes to talk as if you do, too. Let me assure you of one thing: You can’t afford to get drunk at this bar unless you are a Cruikshank of that ilk or a raiser of Arabian ponies. For the rest of us, Snug Harbor is a mere-if-dangerous barrel roll away, and you can use Jar’d at Water Street Market to bridge the two, culturally. Mohonk uses drink pricing as an aggressive instrument of crowd control.
I have always loved Mohonk. I believe my mother took me there once when I was four or younger, and ever since I have dreamed of footbridges over purling streams, gazebos and intricate gardens – not nature per se, but the first cut of art into it, and the promise of an infinity of paths, bridges, gardens and huts radiating in all directions: a promise on which Mohonk damn well near delivers. I worked at Mohonk for two years as a teenager in the late 1970s, and the experience did nothing to dampen my affection for the place or to dispel its enchantment, for Mohonk really is kind of deep – about as deep as money can go, if you ask me.
What brought me to Mohonk last week was a gingerbread house competition, yes, which filled the West Dining Room, to which the bar serves as foyer, with nearly 50 numbered and documented objets d’art edible. The good humor, imagination, artistry and Old World skill in effect was irresistible and moving: a megadose of vitamin Christmas for someone like me, sorely in need of it. And of course, Mohonk served tea and cookies. I smile just remembering it.
There was a Youth Competition and a Mohonk Staff Competition in addition to the general. A People’s Choice Competition allowed one vote per person, but the top prizes were juried by a rather large council: all credentialed food-industry professionals, several at Mohonk. (Incidental aside: Mohonk’s food has been topnotch for years and years now, but there was a time of searching, a time when maybe the resort wasn’t as essential to the gastronomist as it was to the arborist and the birdwatcher. But even in those years, the mountain house was known for its excellent bakery, always its bakery; so there is something historically consonant and right about Mohonk hosting a gingerbread house competition.)
The competition drew a huge and super-friendly crowd. If this wasn’t some pre-digital Old World charm, then such a thing must not exist anymore. Further, the event raised $5,540 for the Food Bank of the Hudson Valley. The awards ceremony was charming.
Fourth place: My years as a music critic have taught me over and over that the things I like best tend to place about fourth in the larger culture – not off the list entirely, but confined to the rungs reserved for curiosities and eccentricities. Bruce Cockburn, not Bruce Springsteen. Careful courting my endorsement, people, though you can do worse than fourth. My favorite gingerbread house of the bunch, Number 32A, Magic Treehouse by defending champion Matthew Maley, placed fourth. I apologize if my mere presence is responsible for Mr. Maley’s diminished returns. For me, Maley’s design struck that perfect balance of refinement and wildness, a complex interiority and intricate detail wedded to a truly graceful, kinetic larger form…why, very like Mohonk itself, now that I think about it.
I trust my judges, though, and the winners were spectacular and deserving, as were most of the designs. I would like to observe, as one final point of curmudgeonly grousing, that the top two prizes went to a J. K. Rowling and a Tim Burton riff. They were extraordinary feats, don’t get me wrong; but the absence of pop-culture referentiality is one of the reasons I chose Magic Treehouse. Like Mohonk, I struggle daily with the flooding in of modernity, and I like it when people fret about it, gumming the works, slowing the pace. People lost actual nights of sleep over the decision to build that bar, you know.
Winners of the Mohonk Gingerbread house competition
1st Place: Christmas Shopping in Diagon Alley by Team Black Family (Elizabeth Black, Anna Black, Sarah Black & Carter Austin)
2nd Place: The Nightmare Before Christmas by Team Tinsel Toes (Leslie Happas & Anthony Sacchetti)
3rd Place: Milton’s 1st North Country Christmas on Gingerbread Island by Team Brunk Built (Keven Brunk & Jessica Brunk)
4th Place: Magic Treehouse by Matthew Maley
Viewers’ Choice Award
(based on votes from the audience)
A Victorian Christmas by Team Rothe – Joseph Rothe & Carl Rothe
1st Place: Wintertime Candy Carousel by Sarah Ludemann
2nd Place: Penguins at Christmas by Cadette Troop 60179 (Caitlin Becker, Maeve Cadabal, Amani Earley, Mia Fraino, Aaliyah Winner: Ghafoor, Raegan Hons, Brianna Jonietz, & Marisa Piegari)
3rd Place: Crumbling Castle by Winner: Coleman Kane-Horrigan
4th Place:Santa’s Workshop by Team Santa’s Elves (Margaret Berci & Julia Rybalov)
5th Place: A Christmas by the Lake by Team Early Settlers (Petros Bunch & Timothy Bunch)
Mohonk employee/families category
1st Place Winner: Wreck the Halls, with Balls of Fire by Team Grady and Sam the Doughboys (Grady Kane-Horrigan & Sam Kane-Horrigan)
2nd Place Winner: The Good, the Bad, and the Ginger by Carmen Doyon
3rd Place Winner: Testimonial Gatehouse by Jennifer Yess
4th Place: Harry Potter Winterscape by Robert Bevilacqua
5th Place: There was an Old Woman who Lived in a Shoe by Ana Saravia