By Debi Lander
Visions of sugarplums danced in my head as I drove to the Omni Grove Park Inn in Asheville, N.C. I made the trip last December to the historic Blue Ridge resort to view the winning entries in the National Gingerbread House Competition. My trail of crumbs led me to displays stopping me dead in my tracks — wide-eyed and childlike. Much more than elaborate houses and cutesy cakes, these creations were architectural masterpieces and stunning works of art. This contest takes gingerbread to the highest level of culinary art.
This “best-of-the-best” competition features three categories: children, teens, and adults. All entries must be 100 percent edible, nothing artificial, but need not be houses. Seventy-five percent must be gingerbread, leaving 25 percent for candy, icing and other edible additions.
Contestants submit their creation upon admission — meaning assembly beforehand. An Omni triage unit provides plenty of royal icing for last-minute fixes.
A highly regarded judging panel evaluates each entry based on overall appearance, originality/creativity, difficulty, precision and consistency of theme. The 2017 panel 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.”
Bragging rights seem the most sought-after award, but dividing $25,000 in cash and prizes puts icing on the ego cakes.
A 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 some of the most glorious greenery, trees and lights anywhere. The Great Gingerbread House lures adults and kids alike to the welcoming Great Hall — a Hansel and Gretel 10 ½-foot gingerbread replica of the Inn. Children can buy hot cocoa while adults cozy up to the lobby bar.
Wine glass in hand, I browsed the floors of gingerbread art for hours, delighting in the children’s entries, relishing the creativity of the teens’ designs (my favorite, The Wall from Game of Thrones), and swooning over breathtaking projects from adult winners.
Billie Mochow, a multi-year winner, 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. Her elegant swan pulling a sleigh over a glassy lake was stunning.
The overall winning entry, by Ann Bailey of Cary, N.C., showcased a collection of books topped by sculpted figures from Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol.” These tiny, yet detailed gingerbread men (of sorts) would have made Michelangelo jealous. The three-dimensional assemblage brought audible gasps from onlookers.
Beyond gingerbread edifices, the Biltmore, America’s largest and perhaps grandest home, remains a must-see in Asheville. Always an eyeful, the Châteauesque-style mansion, built for George Vanderbilt in 1895, dresses itself to the hilt during the holidays — as it did in Vanderbilt’s time. The Banquet Hall’s 35-foot Fraser fir is the centerpiece of the floral fantasy. Thirty thousand twinkling lights and hundreds of candles reflect in thousands of ornaments; miles of garland accent every corner. Outside, 300 hand-lit luminaries adorn the front lawn, drawing attention to a 55-foot Norway spruce draped with more than 45,000 lights. Tickets aren’t cheap, so plan to spend the entire day taking in Biltmore’s gardens, winery and Antler Hill Village. Splurge and spend the night in the Biltmore’s lodging.
But, run, run as fast as you can to make the necessary reservations. The Gingerbread display is open to the public Sundays after 3 p.m. and throughout the day Monday through Thursday, Nov. 25 – Jan. 5. Asheville is well worth the eight-hour drive from Jacksonville.
Visit www.bylandersea.com to read more of local travel writer Debi Lander’s stories and travel tips.
Photo courtesy Debi Lander
Swan and sleigh gingerbread