By Debi Lander | Photography courtesy of Omni Grove Park Inn and Debi Lander
The annual National Gingerbread House Competition in Asheville offers a sweet feast for the eyes.
Visions of sugarplums danced in my head as I drove to the Omni Grove Park Inn in Asheville, North Carolina. I made the trip to the historic Blue Ridge resort last December to view the winning entries in the National Gingerbread House Competition.
A trail of cookie crumbs led me to displays evoking more joy than a wide-eyed child opening that ardently hoped for gift from Santa Claus. Much more than elaborate houses and cutesy cakes, these creations were architectural masterpieces and stunning works of art. This contest takes gingerbread to the stratosphere of culinary art.
The competition began with a small group of gingerbread houses built by community members in 1992 as another way to celebrate the holiday season with no plans to continue the following year. They had no possible way to know that more than two decades later The Omni Grove Park Inn National Gingerbread House Competition would annually host one of the nation’s most celebrated and competitive holiday events.
This “best-of-the-best” competition is divided into three categories: children, teens and adults. All entries must be 100 percent edible with 75 percent of the entry being gingerbread. The remaining 25 percent can be candy, icing and other edible additions with no artificial decorations. Surprisingly, the entries do not have to be houses.
The contestants submit their creations upon admission – meaning gingerbread display assembly beforehand and transport, typically in a car, to the hotel. The Inn’s staff obligingly maintains a triage unit with stores of royal icing for last minute fixes and touch-ups.
A panel of highly regarded judges evaluates each entry based on overall appearance, originality/creativity, difficulty, precision and consistency of theme. The 2017 judges featured world-renowned pastry chefs and artists, including the founder of the International Sugar Art Collection, a curator of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the author of “Making Great Gingerbread Houses.” In 2018, Carla Hall, renowned celebrity chef, author, and television personality, will join the panel of eight. Head judge, Nicholas Lodge has authored more than a dozen sugar art books and instructional DVDs.
Bragging rights seem the most sought-after award, but dividing $25,000 in cash and prizes puts icing on the ego cakes. In addition, contestants gain the media spotlight. In the past, the competition has merited broadcast coverage by ABC’s Good Morning America, the Travel Channel and the Food Network.
RA visit to the Inn itself is another sweet treat, an overnight stay even better. The 513-room resort recalls a grand old National Park lodge, decorated for the holidays with glorious greenery, trees and lights. The Great Gingerbread House – a Hansel and Gretel 10.5-foot gingerbread replica of the Grove Park Inn – lures adults and kids alike to the welcoming Great Hall.
I browsed the floors of gingerbread art for hours, delighting in the children’s entries (a baseball stadium), relishing the creativity of the teens’ designs, and swooning over the breathtaking designs of the adult winners. My personal favorite was The Wall from Games of Thrones in the teens’ category.
Billie Mochow, a multiyear winner from Burns, Tennessee, said, “Coming up with my idea is one of the hardest parts.” She contemplates possibilities from January through May, beginning her tedious artwork in the summer. Some parts must be made early so the gingerbread dries out and won’t become soggy later.
When not working with gingerbread, Mochow creates wedding cakes and sugar eggs at Easter. Her entry of the majestic swan pulling a sleigh across a glassy lake was regal.
“The delicate fondant feathers on the swans back were the hardest part,” says Mochow.
The 2017 overall winning entry by Ann Bailey of Cary, North Carolina, showcased a collection of books topped by sculpted figures from Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol.” These tiny, yet detailed gingerbread men would have made Michelangelo jealous. The 3-dimensional assemblage brought audible gasps from onlookers. The Grand Prize winner’s creation stays in a display case at the Grove Park Inn all year long.
It is necessary to secure reservations early for Asheville’s busy holiday season. The Gingerbread display opens to the public from Nov. 25 through Jan. 5 on Sundays after 3 p.m. and throughout the day Monday through Thursday. Only overnight and dining guests of the resort can attend on Fridays and Saturdays.
Please note, viewing is free but parking is $20. As part of its ongoing commitment to local not-for-profits, The Omni Grove Park Inn donates half of all parking proceeds raised throughout the contest to eight local recipients. Since the inception of the charitable Holiday Parking Program in 2013, the property has contributed over $340,000 to nonprofit partners in western North Carolina.
omnihotels.com/hotels/asheville-grove-parkRead More in DeSoto Magazine online.