For some people, the smell of fresh-cut pine or gingerbread evokes the spirit of Christmas.
For Eric Jacobson, it’s the smell of Juicy Fruit gum.
The 45-year-old Springs resident has created his own brilliant, creative and time-consuming Christmas tradition over the last 14 years, building elaborate, intricately detailed nine-feet-tall dollhouses made almost entirely of food. His creations, which are on display in the home he shares with his partner, Paul Goerz, are something of an obsession, a creative outlet that he looks forward to each year and which become the center of attention at holiday gatherings and even for curious neighbors who stop by to take a look.
Jacobson, who grew up in Port Jefferson before moving out east, has worked as the maitre d’ at the Italian restaurant, Doppo, on Bay Street in Sag Harbor, for the past 11 years, and his regular customers are so familiar with his work that during the holidays, they regularly give him gift certificates to local art stores to help him purchase the materials he needs for the dollhouses—or, as he calls them, “manly architectural structures.”
Earlier in November, he was sketching out plans for a 1920s bank, that would be roughly nine feet high and 2-and-a-half-feet wide, the usual size of the structures. But he ultimately changed course and decided to build a house based on one of his favorite cities — New Orleans.
Jacobsen was still putting finishing touches on the structure when we caught up with him last weekend, but it was clear he was happy with his work, and for good reason. The house has five levels, and several rooms, each with different themes related to the city, and with stunning levels of detail. There is a basement level catacombs with a statue of the famous grieving angel; a voodoo-theme room that pays homage to Marie Laveau, a famous voodoo practitioner from the 19th century; a replica of Jackson Square, where artists display their paintings on the fence outside; and a bar dubbed “Eric and Paul’s” with bright lights.
The house is not entirely edible, because Jacobsen uses a hot glue gun to hold it together, and uses regular dollhouse furniture to decorate the structure. But the majority of the structure itself is made from food, from the gold-glazed pumpkin seed tiles on the roof, and painted pasta wheels and twizzlers used as siding, and countless packs of Juicy Fruit gum cut and dyed to create exquisitely life-like tiles and siding. Jacobson has become a big fan of fondant in recent years, and he used it to create several flourishes in the house, including purple tablecloths on dining tables with chairs made from champagne bottle tops, as well as on the walls of the lower catacomb level, where he blow dried the fondant to create realistic cracks in the wall. There is even a gently gurgling water fountain on the lower level.
The fascination with creating such intricate structures began, Jacobson said, when he was a child and his sister-in-law bought him a gingerbread house kit at Christmas time. It became a tradition, but one that Jacobson strayed from as he grew older. He delved into the same idea more than a decade ago, after moving in with Goerz, and over the years has created several houses with interesting themes — a Swiss Family Robinson treehouse, an ice hotel, a replica of the Moulin Rouge, a log cabin. One of his favorite moments is when they host a holiday party, and family, friends and other guests spend a long time analyzing the house, and expressing shock at the discovery of what kind of food or edible product was used in different areas.
Jacobson also credits his background in theater for his penchant for creativity and expression that he’s putting to use by creating the houses.
“I was trained in theater and worked in New York for 10 years,” he said. “That was my creative outlet, and then I didn’t have access to that anymore. Once I started doing the houses, I found that this was a creative outlet that really drives me.”
Jacobson typically gets to work around Thanksgiving, but he said he is thinking of the structure all year long, trying to decide on a theme and sketching it out for months.
“Just deciding what to do is a headache,” he said. “I drive my partner up a wall, and keep changing my mind. And then I take over the whole dining room, and that drives him nuts too.”
His creations are beloved by friends and family, but his themes don’t always have universal acceptance. Three years ago, Jacobson said he felt compelled to do something “completely different,” and created a replica of the house from the Alfred Hitchcock movie, Psycho, complete with the murder scene.
“My mother lifted the roof up and said, ‘Eric, this isn’t very Christmas-y,’” Jacboson recalled with a laugh. “But people loved it, because it was different.”
Another tradition around the building of the houses would typically occur after Christmas. Once everyone has seen the structure, and the shelf life of the edible products used to make it are coming to an end, Jacobson and Goerz would bring it outside and blow it up — literally — in the backyard, with a firecracker. They stopped doing that a few years ago, mainly because it wasn’t legal, strictly speaking, and also because it created a few mishaps.
“One year I did this Jules Verne floating ship thing, and when we blew that one up, it flew so high into a tree that we couldn’t get it down,” Jacobson said. “It was up there for a few months until a good wind knocked it down, and it came down with a splat. So now we just put it in the fire pit.”
While the houses always come to a somewhat tragic and fiery end, Jacobson said he still enjoys the whole process, and is considering expanding his creative outlet into something more permanent — building real dollhouses and replicas of peoples’ homes for high-end buyers. He also said that while he has never publicly displayed his edible creations, he is open to the idea of doing that as well, if the opportunity presents itself.
“I’ve had some friends bring strangers over for Christmas just to see it, and I’m cool with that,” Jacobson said. “I would love to put it on display somewhere, I’ve just never had the opportunity to do that.”
Asked if it’s ever painful to watch the creation he works so hard on burn down after the holidays are done, Jacobson said that, by then, he and Goerz are ready to let go.
“By that point, he’s just glad to have it out of the house,” Jacobson said with a laugh. “He loves them, but then he’s like, enough, it’s time. He’s in charge of the tree at Christmas, and I’m in charge of the house.”