Meet Munk School’s resident gingerbread house expert & singer: Off the clock with Sarah Namer

Sarah has been at the University of Toronto (U of T) for five years: three at the Munk School and two at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health.

What do you do off the clock?

My principal ‘off the clock’ activity, year round, is choral singing. In December, around Christmas time, I take on gingerbread building projects. The two activities are totally unrelated, except perhaps that they both spring from the same spirit of goofy exuberance.

How did you first become interested in singing and in becoming an ‘off-the-clock’ pastry chef?

I come from a family of professional musicians; my mother is a pianist and my father plays bassoon. My original training was in performance music as a violinist, but an injury early on kept me from continuing.
Portrait photo of Sarah Namer, Assistant to the Director, Munk School of Global Affairs
Sarah Namer Assistant to the Director, Munk School of Global Affairs
Choral singing has allowed me to keep that part of my life engaged and vital, and that gives me tremendous joy. I started singing as an undergrad here at U of T in the Hart House chorus. Now I sing as a volunteer chorister in the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir, which has a concert schedule of anywhere between 15 and 20 performances a year. (Sarah’s great aunt Mildred Goodman was the Montreal Women’s Symphony Orchestra first concertmaster who went on to become the first woman in the Montreal Symphony Orchestra.) I inherited building gingerbread houses from my family as well, as Christmas baking was a huge feature of the year for my mother and, growing up, decorating gingerbread cookies was an occasion of great ceremony and excitement (an oddity, perhaps, in that all sides of the family are Jewish, but that’s material for a different article). Sarah Namer's gingerbread house of the Munk School I made the first house five years ago, when my brother’s kids were just coming to an age to really get a kick out of it, and I’ve made one each year since then. I sometimes bring them to my nieces and nephew, and some years, like this one, I build them for the Munk School’s annual silent auction to raise money for local Toronto charities.

Tell us about this year’s gingerbread house for the Munk School.

This year’s house is essentially a cartoon replica of the building I work in, the Munk School of Global Affairs at 315 Bloor Street West, which was built in the late 1890s to house the Dominion Meteorological Service. sarah-namer-banner-gingerbread-detail As an observatory, the building’s most distinctive feature is the four-story circular telescope tower on its East wall. It also has lots of really beautiful architectural elements like decorative arches, idiosyncratic dormers, and a lovely gracious overall symmetry which makes it, by my slightly eccentric reckoning anyway, ideally suited for representation in gingerbread. I knew the novelty of a gingerbread Munk School would be a hit for the auction, so I decided to give it a try. This is the first gingerbread house I’ve built using my own drawings for the design.

How long did it take you to build and how did you make the pieces?

I think it would be fair to say, that counting silly things like runs to the bulk store, the house took about 50 hours shoe-horned around work and rehearsals. Because I had an actual building floorplan to work from, the design was pretty straight-forward. I drafted out the elevations using measurements by eye, and then scaled the whole thing around the diameter of a 19 oz can of beans, as a form for baking the tower. Sarah Namer, gingerbread house pieces Altogether, there are more than 40 individual pieces, not counting sugar windows, things like trees, or the outbuilding (the ‘Transit House’). I ended up putting together the little side building at the last minute with graham crackers (a bit of a cheat), after one particularly dogged colleague persuaded me that a gingerbread Munk School would be incomplete without it. Everything you see, with the exception of maybe the light bulb inside, is edible.

What (or who) inspires or influences your work?

Inspiration in music is incredibly difficult to articulate. There’s a long tradition in classical music training that is exceptionally rich, in which you can actually trace teachers across generations and lineages, and that’s a very potent idea. There’s also the ever present and ever receding goal of trying to create something beautiful that is true to what you think a composer meant to write, and that conveys emotion in an honest way. It’s impossibly hard, but also endlessly motivating. The inspiration for the gingerbread houses is much more prosaic…. I Googled “amazing gingerbread houses” and started baking! Submitted with photos by Adrienne Harry, digital communications specialist at the Munk School of Global Affairs