The Art of Gingerbread

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For many the sights, smells, and tastes of the holidays instantly remind them of happy memories and make the season even grander. Gingerbread certainly falls into this category—and one place that celebrates it like no other is the National Gingerbread House Competition, which has been delighting competitors and visitors alike in Asheville, North Carolina, since 1992.

When this event started, though, it wasn’t a competition: the gingerbread houses were created for display. However, someone ended up asking who won, so a winner was declared.

Twenty-seven years later, a lot has changed—including a very specific set of rules now in place. For example, each display must be made of edible materials and constructed of at least 75 percent gingerbread. Entries sitting on their base can be no larger than twenty-four inches tall or wide. And, despite the moniker, you don’t have to create a house.

Competitors can enter their creations into one of four age-based categories: adult (18 and older), teen (13–17), youth (9–12), and child (5–8). The entries are then judged on overall appearance, originality and creativity, difficulty, precision, and consistency of theme. Thirteen prizes, worth over $25,000 in total (including over $10,000 in monetary prizes) are awarded: first, second, and third place in each category, plus one for whoever traveled the farthest. The adult category’s grand-prize package includes $5,000 and a complimentary stay at The Omni Grove Park Inn, where the competition is held.

In 2018, that was the reward for North Carolinians Julie and Michael Andreacola, who took top prize with their entry “Gearing up for Christmas”—which featured working gears made of gingerbread. Catherine Beddall of Ottawa, Ontario, earned second place with her intricate “Hickory, Dickory, Dock” clock, and third place went to Grier Rubeling, also from North Carolina, who created the whimsical “Reindeer Playing Poker.” The first-place teen winners, Courtland High School German Club from Virginia, won for the fifth time with its “Old Towne Trolley Tour.”

Beyond the Battle Overall, the twenty-sixth annual National Gingerbread House Competition was another smashing success, with 190 gingerbread creations entered and the event being covered by media outlets like NBC, Food Network, and NPR. Every year, though, the competitors and The Omni staff both put a lot of effort into it, and it shows—in many ways.

“Five thousand dollars is amazing, but you don’t give that much of your life, your holiday time, and your passion if you don’t love gingerbread—and these people love it, live it, and breathe it,” says Tracey Johnston-Crum, director of public relations and community outreach for The Omni Grove Park Inn. “Some people dedicate four hundred or five hundred working hours to them. It’s similar to dog shows or horse shows or Comic-Con, where there’s almost a subculture; in fact, they created their own private Facebook group called Gingerfriends. They have to be part of this culture, and that passion shows in the work.”

Johnston-Crum concedes that, for this reason, it’s easy to experience the highs and lows with the competitors. “The hardest part of the entire competition is getting the gingerbread creation here,” she reveals. “Unfortunately, we’ve had a few that didn’t make it through the door. It is devastating, not only to the competitor but to all of us because we know the competitors. We have a vested interest in them—we’ve watched many of them grow up.” For such emergencies, The Omni has a triage area set up with things like royal icing and candies so competitors can try to fix their displays before walking them into the ballroom.

Specific rules also apply to the staff involved with the competition. “We are not allowed to pick up the houses at any time, and we are not allowed to move them for the competitors,” says Johnston-Crum. “But I do escort the competitors in because there are certain things in the hotel they have to walk around. And I like to talk to them and learn more about them.” The folks at The Omni also help the competitors by keeping the ballroom cold (which is better for the displays) and keeping the entrants anonymous for the judges.

Credibility and Validity Judges have included renowned cake artist and chef Nicholas Lodge, who has made cakes for Britain’s royal family and is the call (or lead) judge, and Cheryl Forberg, who’s the nutritionist for The Biggest Loser and a James Beard Award winner. But others outside of the culinary field also judge. “We’ve got educators and authors. We even have Nadine Orenstein, who’s a curator for the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and who’s one of my favorite judges. She looks for different things than the chefs may look for,” Johnston-Crum shares.

To help with the scoring, the judges carry flashlights so they don’t miss any of the intricate details the competitors painstakingly add to their creations. On the opposite end of the spectrum, Johnston-Crum reveals that “our experts know what people try to get away with, so Chef Nick always brings his tool kit so we can drill into houses that we have concerns about.” (And for good reason: one time they even discovered that a PVC pipe ran through the center of a piece.) The judges will also occasionally break things off to eat them, just to make sure they meet the edibility requirement of the competition.

But it was a new judge, celebrity chef Carla Hall, who may have made the most impact in 2018 by expressing just how impressed she was by the quality of the event. “Chef Carla told me, ‘I’ve never been to a food competition that took care of their judges, integrated them, and made them feel like they were part of the competition the way that you do.’ Our whole goal is to make this an enjoyable experience for everyone involved—that is truly what makes this competition different,” Johnston-Crum says. “So it was validating to hear her, coming in with a fresh perspective, say that we do it for everybody, not just the competitors.”

The Secret Ingredient: Joy The National Gingerbread House Competition has become a tradition for many families, who come year after year to view the winning displays during the holiday season. “Most hotels empty out during the holidays, but we’re the exact opposite,” Johnston-Crum states. “We sell out every Christmas Eve and every Christmas Day. For many, Grove Park becomes Christmas personified.” The event also helps Asheville economically by drawing business from near and far, and The Omni’s holiday parking program gives a portion of the holiday season’s parking proceeds to the community. Over the past six years, over $430,000 has been given to local not-for-profits.

Johnston-Crum was there again this year, welcoming every competitor to The Omni for the 2019 National Gingerbread House Competition, held on November 18—with the winning creations to be on display through January 4, 2020. “The inventiveness and the passion impress me every year, but it’s also a hard competition. People take it very seriously, and we take it very seriously,” she concludes. “But we also truly believe that it should be fun and that everyone involved is touched positively by it. We want you to find that little piece of nostalgia that takes you back to a simpler time and rekindles something in your childhood that made you joyful—because, when you get down to it, that’s what gingerbread houses do.”