This article appears in Oct. 10 Weekly Travel page.
Hansel and Gretel weren’t the only ones tempted by the home-baked warmth and comfort of gingerbread. Amateur bakers vying for first place at The National Gingerbread House Competition at The Omni Grove Park Inn in Asheville, North Carolina, have visions of gingerbread — not sugar plums — dancing in their heads.
For them, it’s all about working their magic with spices and sugar into grand temples of gingerbread.
“At first, it was not intended to be a competition, but as a community display of gingerbread houses from about 12 local bakers,” said Tracey Johnston-Crum, the inn’s public relations director. “It wasn’t until a guest asked which one was the winner that it became a competition, and took on a life of its own.”
Now in its 27th year, The National Gingerbread House Competition is one of the country’s most celebrated — and competitive — baking events. This year, the gingerbread confections will be on public display from Nov. 20 to Jan. 4.
Contestants arrive on Nov. 17, and the next day, nine judges pick the winners by 6 p.m. Last year, there were 190 entries, and on average, the competition attracts 150 to 175 entries a year, Johnston-Crum said. About 150,000 visitors see the displays each year.
The rules aren’t complicated. Basically, everything must be edible, except the base, and the pieces must be 75 percent gingerbread.
There are four categories: Child, youth, teen and adult, and the three winners in each category compete for more than $28,000 in cash and prizes.
It’s a national contest, but entries from Canada have competed, as have contestants from 32 states.
Don’t be fooled by the competition’s name, because everything conceivable in gingerbread has made appearances, from the White House to London’s Tower Bridge to Noah’s Ark to a pirate’s ship to panda bears.
“You think you have seen everything, but every year I am surprised by what people come up with,” Johnston-Crum said.
The best pieces tell a story or show a contestant’s sentimental attachment to a movie, book or person. One entry that stood out was a replica of a contestant’s grandfather’s country store in Daylight, Tennessee.
“The details were incredible and unbelievable, from the labels on the canned goods to the produce, the potbelly stove and the candy station,” Johnston-Crum said.
Another memorable display recreated iconic images from the movie “A Christmas Story,” including Ralphie in his pink bunny pajamas, the leg lamp and the Red Ryder BB gun.
Whatever designs contestants come up with, the judges are usually won over by the participant’s passion and attention to detail. And nothing escapes their eagle eyes, from the tiny, Moscow mule copper mugs gracing a table at which reindeer were playing poker to the realistic-looking candles made of white chocolate standing next to a gingerbread clock.
“Whatever is near and dear to the hearts of our contestants and what they truly love will manifest itself into their gingerbread entries,” Johnston-Crum said.
For more information, visit omnihotels.com/grovepark.