Bake, Bake As Fast As He Can
01/30/2017 09:15AM ● Published by Robert Frey
Story & Photos by Scott Brazda
Charles Romero’s nickname used to be ‘Pop’ because…
“I was the oldest guy at most of the places I worked.”
But the nickname that has truly stuck, and the one he’s carried with him the last six years is...
“‘The Gingerbread Man.’ And that’s fine with me; I love hearing folks say, ‘Here comes the Gingerbread Man.’”
The Gingerbread Man
The very name begs the question: Why is a 68-year-old New Iberia man, whose resume is comprised mainly of jobs in which he cooked for oilfield workers offshore, now called the ‘Gingerbread Man’? Whatever possessed him to go from ribeye steaks and rice and gravy to... gingerbread men?
“Oh, it’s not just the regular sized gingerbread men,” corrects Charles.
“I bake little gingerbread men, hearts, whatever shapes they want. Little Christmas trees this year. Crawfish season rolls around? I make crawfish shapes.”
That’s all well and good, and, yes, they are delicious (the best-tasting gingerbread this middle-aged reporter, who grew up on Jack’s Rock ‘n’ Roll Gingerbread Planks, has ever tasted), but that still doesn’t answer the ‘why.’ There’s really no mystery to that either. Baking gingerbread, you see, was simply something that interested Charles Romero.
“Gingerbread? I just always wanted to do it,” he says simply. “Looked at some cookbooks, and I said, ‘I can do better than that.’ Then I came up with my own recipe. And everybody says, ‘Oh, that’s better than..... Oh, you can fill in the names of a bunch of local bakeries,” he laughs.
Bake. Give. Repeat.
Baking is one thing, but baking for others, and then just giving your treats away takes it to an entirely different level. “This was something I always wanted to do: Bake. And give.”
“He always just gives with a good heart,” says his wife Eva. “This is just love; it’s all about love. It only comes out if you do it with love. He loves to do this, this is what his heart’s desire is to bake these and give them away.”
And boy, does Charles give. On a regular basis, he delivers boxes of gingerbread to a nearby fire station (“they never say ‘no,’” says Charles) or to employees at New Iberia’s Rosary House (“they get real excited when they see me coming.”) But it’s at his wife’s workplace, St. Edward School, that the Gingerbread Man truly makes his mark.
“Miss Karen (Bonin), the principal, said, ‘Mr. Charles, we need 250 gingerbread men for the PTO. Can we do this?’ I started rolling the dough, cut them out, and next thing you know, 250 gingerbread Christmas trees.” And did the parents like them? “There were only 10 left.”
Before The Bread
Charles has come a long way from flipping hamburgers at the age of 10 at the legendary Hungry House, or simply cooking at home for his mother. He left New Iberia High School during his sophomore year after seeing an opportunity to make some money in the oilfield. “I also had trouble in school,” he recalls. “Not bad trouble. Just trouble understanding.”
Even in the late 1960s, though, the foundation was laid. Seems like nearly every job Romero had involved cooking, be it on an oilrig or at Cypress Bayou Casino. “I learned a lot in all of those jobs,” he says. “How to use the right amounts of ingredients. How to work with people. How to clean and sanitize your kitchen. It’s all stuff I do now when I bake and then deliver the gingerbread.”
In 2004, Romero was injured when his car was struck by a drunk driver, and not long after was a brief period of blindness. Rehab was tough, “the doctor said, ‘You need to find a hobby, find something to keep your mind in order.” Who knew that ‘something’ would be gingerbread?
“He’s a self-made man, a self-made cook,” says Eva proudly. “And this?” she asks aloud, pointing to the kitchen. “This is all his. I snuck into the kitchen the other day, made some cookies and then threw them out. His are so much better.”
The Secret Recipe
The ingredients in Charles Romero’s magical gingerbread are, on the surface, pretty basic. “Flour. Sugar. Softened butter. Molasses. Baking soda. Eggs. Cinnamon. Ground cloves. Ground ginger.” I tell Charles I can handle that, but he stops me from getting too cocky. “Sure, you whip it all up, but you don’t know the amounts.” Only his granddaughters, says Charles, have the detailed gingerbread recipe.
And does the Gingerbread Man always knock it out of the park? Is every batch a perfect one? “If a batch is bad, he’ll know it right away,” explains Eva. “He’ll start to roll it out, and can immediately see that it’s not any good, so he throws it out and starts all over again. In the trash it goes, and he’s back to Super One to get the ingredients to do another batch.”
Romero isn’t sure about the exact number of gingerbread cookies he bakes each week; he says it just depends on who needs it. “I did about 2,000 treats just before Christmas at St. Edward.” Each cookie is cut from the dough one at a time; there’s no automation, and that sits just fine with him. “And if he needs an ingredient or two, he’ll just go to the store and barter with the manager,” says Eva. “Nobody ever tells him ‘no.’”
Heart Shaped Cookies & Local Love
It’s all worth it, furthers Charles, when a St. Edward student shows him how much a seemingly simply piece of gingerbread means. “A third grader named Lucy drew a picture of me with my cane and wrote, ‘I love Mr. Charles because he brings us treats at school.’ All those kids will ask. Even the past students will come up to me and say, ‘Mr. Charles, where’s my gingerbread?’ So, I’ll get it to them. I don’t want to let them down.”
He’ll just make a batch or a double batch, rolling the dough at night and letting it sit in the refrigerator. He’s got a huge collection of cookie cutters, cutters of different shapes and sizes, some bought and some given, and each adds a different chapter to the story of the Gingerbread Man. “Take hearts, for example,” says Romero. “Valentine’s Day is coming, and that day is all about love and hearts.” And a heart means? “That’s her,” he says, pointing across room to Eva. “She’s my heart. She’s my love.”
“Everyone thinks gingerbread is seasonal,” adds Eva, “but the way he prepares it and puts all the love in it, it can be for any holiday, for any season, for any event, for any occasion you want.”
Still, hearts and their collective place on Valentine’s Day are currently taking center stage in Romero’s kitchen; love, you see, makes the world and the Gingerbread Man go ‘round. Romero himself was a recipient of some St. Edward School love just a few years ago.
“My oven broke, and I was back at school with Eva, and they (staff, teachers and students) said, ‘Where’s the gingerbread, Mr. Charles?’ I tell ‘em, ‘no oven.’ Well, 40 families and some teachers got together and bought me an oven and put it in. Miss Karen said, ‘I’ve got a surprise for you,’ because they wanted their gingerbread. It made me cry to know they cared so much.”
His doctors get gingerbread men; so do employees at his favorite restaurants and even the baristas at the nearby Starbucks. So why, I ask, doesn’t he turn this hobby and passion into a bit of a business? “No, I don’t sell it. I’m not allowed to, but that’s OK. I just love giving it away. That’s what it’s all about.”
How long will the Gingerbread Man continue to serve gingerbread? Romero says it’s all in the Lord’s hands. “Oh, no; no way. I’ll never get tired of gingerbread or of making gingerbread.”
“For as long as I’m around, I’ll just be rolling in the dough.”