The official largest gingerbread village, from 2014. It contained 1,0003 buildings. (Photo: Courtesy Jon Lovitch.)
The only opinion that matters, though, is that of the Guinness World Records. And Guinness says it’s in Queens.
Enormous rocking chairs, obscene artificial ducks, Brobgingnagian rubber band balls; it seems as though the human race is hardwired to build giant-friendly versions of boring things. Most of these manifest as roadside attractions; you might not have planned on having lunch in Riverside, California, until the world’s largest paper cup inspires a closer look and a short stopover. There are over 160 highway monuments of this sort in the United States alone, supersizing everything from boll weevils to weather vanes.
That at least in part explains the ferocity with which Bergen, in particular, defends its “world’s largest” claim. Every winter since 1991, its citizens have banded together to create a gingerbread village of mammoth proportions. Called (delightfully) Pepperkakebyen by the locals who help build it, the edible edifices had long been a point of civic pride and a top tourist draw. The city’s promoters give it prominent billing, and at 70 kroener (about $9) a head, it presumably ends up driving decent revenue back into the city coffers.
It’s a feel-good story, a community coming together year after year, individuals contributing their small piece to the greater good. It also annoyed the hell out of Jon Lovitch.
“It was about five years ago that I started hearing false claims about the ‘world’s biggest,’” says Lovitch, the creator of Gingerbread Lane and current holder of the Guinness world record for largest gingerbread village. ”It started to gnaw at me; people were posting on web pages and news articles ‘biggest in the world,’ and it wasn’t even half the size of what I did.”
What Lovitch had done, specifically, was singlehandedly create gingerbread villages numbering dozens of houses every year for the last two decades. Rather than share the claim of world’s largest with a few dubious competitors, he contacted Guinness to find out exactly what it would take to make it official. The answer was more complicated than you might think.
Lovitch’s competition: the Pepperkakebyen in Norway. (Photo: Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.)
“It’s very intense,” he explains. “They want a sketch and a map of the exhibit that has to match photography. You have to have 10 percent of it be commercial; churches, schools, fire stations, town halls, hotels. Every house has to be six inches in any one direction. You cannot use anything besides gingerbread, icing, and candy, and that’s what trips up people who try to dethrone me, particularly my friends in Norway.”
That’s how Lovitch refers to the Bergen contingent, who in 2013—the first year that Lovitch officially claimed the title—built a more expansive village than Gingerbread Lane’s 157 structures, but had done so using non-edible elements like hot glue and styrofoam. That might explain why Bergen currently has an application in with Guinness, but, according to the record-keepers, hasn’t provided the necessary evidence to support its claim.
Regardless, to “silence critics,” in Lovitch’s words, in 2014 he beat his previous record by nearly 900 houses. The most recent iteration of Gingerbread Lane has 1,003 buildings spanning 484 square feet, and comprises about 3,100 pounds of icing, 600 pounds of gingerbread dough, and 700 pounds of candy. The combined weight is slightly more than your average hippopotamus.
It should be noted here that Lovitch has a day job, as executive chef at New York’s Algonquin Hotel. It’s an important detail, because building the world’s largest gingerbread village by yourself takes time. Specifically, it takes nearly a full year of working well over 20 hours per week. Lovitch presently has no sponsorship deals in place, and takes no fee from the New York Hall of Science when the Queens museum displays his creations during the holidays every year. A gingerbread village wouldn’t make for much of a roadside attraction, and even if it did, Jon Lovitch is a man, not a municipality. So… what’s in it for him?
Notoriety, for starters. Lovitch acknowledges that his appearances in USA Today and on the Today Show have driven some traffic to the Algonquin, besides which there’s something fun about a little bit of fame. But most of all, Lovitch sounds like the type of person who’s fortunate enough to have an obsession that aligns neatly with a public good, and thoughtful enough to act on it.
Another view on Lovitch’s creation from 2014. (Photo: Courtesy Jon Lovitch.)
“At the Hall of Science the last few years in New York City, I just get thousands on thousands of people that want to come see [Gingerbread Lane]. They stand there in awe, they love it, they think it’s the most amazing thing they’ve ever seen. And that’s the motivating factor,” he says.
“That’s the only way I know of that I can reach people.”
Which isn’t to say that Gingerbread Lane will always be a loss leader; there’s money in being the world’s largest if you know where to look for it. During his early building days in the ‘90s Lovitch had sponsorship deals from big-name confectioners like Hershey, Pillsbury, Brach’s, M&Ms, and Hammond’s; instead of bleeding cash into gingerbread condos, he came out a couple thousand dollars ahead at the end of the year. And that was before he—or anyone else—had a world record to boast.
One particularly rigorous IRS audit—they plowed through 380 receipts in search of one $20 donation—turned turned Lovitch off to the sponsorship route, but he’s started to consider it again. He also says he’s been inundated with offers from casinos, amusement parks, and other deep-pocketed venues over the last decade or so. “If that side of it takes off, then maybe it’s something that becomes a vocation,” Lovitch says.
If someone can make a healthy living being the 32nd best starting quarterback in the United States, or the 125th best golfer, surely the creator of the world’s largest confection-based city can too. At least, that’s the dream.
For now, though, Lovitch is already three and a half months deep into planning and constructing Gingerbread Lane 2015. He’s intentionally vague on specifics, not wanting to tip his hand, but he does say it will be at least as big as last year’s creation. Pepperkakebyen is coming, and Jon Lovitch will be ready for it.