Grove Park Inn photo
This reindeer carousel by Billie Mochow of Burns, Tenn., won the grand prize at the Grove Park Inn’s Gingerbread House Competition in 2008.
Months before the season of sugar plums and eggnog, Linda Carney’s home fills with the aroma of warm gingerbread and sweet candy.
That’s because Carney is part of the elaborate feast for the eyes known as the annual Grove Park Inn National Gingerbread House Competition. Now in its 17th year at the elegant Asheville, N.C. resort, the Gingerbread Competition has risen to national prominence with the winning houses appearing on network television morning shows and parts of the competition filmed by the Food Network.
Carney, an administrator for an Asheville group home for children with autism and other behavioral challenges, entered the competition for the first time last year. While she didn’t place, her three-tiered Disney riverboat design charmed the judges enough to offer private commentary, suggesting she be more elaborate with her details next time.
That proved to be just the kind of encouragement the hobby baker needed, and since August, Linda has occupied her dining room table every night sketching, drawing, and quite literally creating a blueprint for what will be her most ambitious baking project to date—not merely a house, but an entire village.
Gumdrop Cabins and Pastry Castles
Linda Carney happened upon the Gingerbread House contest by chance. After her parents moved to Hickory, N.C., (about an hour’s drive east of Asheville), she toured the resort with them during the holidays in 2000. The usual lines snaked their way through the inn’s stately hallways, finally reaching their destination of gingerbread heaven. Rich smells of cloves, ginger, cinnamon and spun sugar hung in the air as visitors “oohed” and “aahed” over the architectural confections, ranging from squat little cabins with gumdrops and marshmallow accents to fantastical castles made with professional patisserie-like perfection.
“I was mesmerized,” marvels Carney, “I have been baking since I was a little girl and I thought ‘Oh cool, I would love to do that someday.’”
A fan of “Ace of Cakes” and other baking shows, Carney eventually made the move from Long Island, New York to North Carolina, always keeping this holiday endeavor in mind until she finally found the time last year to plan out her riverboat entry.
“It was a whole lot of trial and error,” recalls Carney. “I sat down on the living room floor with a rough model of poster board and taped it together, measured precisely, and went from there.”
Photographs of the project show step-by-step construction—first, the paper and cardboard model and then the actual baked gingerbread base and platforms that included the boat, candy cane balustrades, piped royal icing railings, and paddles made of colorful cinnamon and spearmint sticks of gum.
Once the structure and decoration was complete, Carney had the knee-shaking task of transporting the work of art to the Grove Park Inn. Her partner Lisa drove while she sat ready to right the steamboat should a bump send the ship airborne.
Fortunately the ride was smooth, but nervous excitement rose again when Carney reached the ballroom that held all the eager entrants. They surrounded long banquet tables scooted end to end, each with an artist putting the finishing touches on a masterpiece.
“The hustle and bustle is such a big part of it,” says Carney, recalling the first day of open judging with obvious relish.
She curiously watched the judges stop and reflect upon each entry, take notes, furrow their brows, and hold hushed discussions. Culinary and visual arts professionals from around the country composed the panel of seven judges. This year, the number will be up to ten, with one judge being a curator from the Metropolitan Museum of Art specializing in architecture.
What It Takes to Win
While never having professionals judge her baking before, Carney has passed muster with friends and co-workers for years. Taking on the role of Christmas cookie baker since the age of 9, she now begins hearing from friends around October, asking what kind she’ll be making this year.
That’s the type of enthusiasm that bodes well for a competitor, according to Aaron Morgan, a former executive pastry chef at the Grove Park Inn. A judge of the Gingerbread Competition for many years and co-author of the how-to book Making Gingerbread Houses: Delicious Designs from Cabins to Castles, Morgan oversaw the competition for more than a decade.
“It’s key for people to enjoy what they are doing, to be creative,” advises Morgan, now a freelance chef and consultant. “But there are a lot of creative and artsy people out there.”
In other words, the competition can be fierce.
With 282 entrants in 2008, Billie Mochow of Burns, Tenn., won her second prize since entering only the year before. The seven judges deliberated for more than six hours to determine the winners among four categories: adult, teen, youth and child. More than 600 spectators watched the judging process in the resort’s grand ballroom.
Mochow’s snow-globe village won first prize in 2007 and her reindeer carousel won the grand prize in 2008.
“As with anything, you should follow the rules,” says Mochow. “Be neat, precise and enjoy what you’re doing. Then it shows.”
But then, Mochow has been honing her talent for 20 years in the now-defunct Nashville gingerbread competition at the Loews Vanderbilt Hotel.
Mochow has learned not to sweat the small stuff.
“It’s impossible to figure out the amount of time you spend on this,” she says. “If you are enjoying it, you just lose track of time. And once I’m done, I’m done.”
She packs her completed piece in a box and tapes it shut for the five-hour drive to Asheville and only opens it once it’s in the competition hall.
“Of course I threatened my husband—“you better not hit a pothole!’” She laughs.
Mochow’s first winning entry came from her interest in snow globes.
“I like them and I wondered if I could do one in gingerbread,” she says. “I see things and think, ‘Boy, I bet that would be neat in gingerbread.’”
A competitor from Florida plans on doing a Space Shuttle-themed gingerbread assemblage. One baker always makes an elaborate Victorian house. The sky’s the limit.
“It’s really about finding what inspires you, and that’s where you will be strongest,” says Brian “Gingerbread Man” Davis, special events supervisor at the Grove Park Inn Resort. “For first-timers, we always say, ‘Just have fun with it.’ So many people put their heart and soul in it, finding what inspires you is where you are going to be the strongest. And you want to pique the judge’s curiosity. It needs to wow the judges. A clean, crisp piece that’s not too cluttered really draws them in.”
This year an additional aspect of the competition will help future competitors and provide background information to the just-curious with a behind-the-scenes ticketed tour of the gingerbread house-making process. Drawings, mock-ups, construction methods, decorating tips—all will be at hand for a nominal fee. The Inn’s retail shops will be stocked with gingerbread treats, cookie cutters, and other accoutrements meant to inspire baking creativity at home.
Viewing the completed houses scattered around the Inn is free and a holiday tradition for many. Guests stroll the halls to see 40 fully decorated Christmas trees and listen to carolers around the lobby’s grand piano.
It Takes a Village
This year, the holiday spirit came early—a little unexpectedly. With the downturn in the economy, Linda Carney’s partner lost her job as a marketing director and money was tight.
“I didn’t think I’d be able to pull things together for the competition,” says Carney, already deeply entrenched in her concept of a village based on the Twelve Days of Christmas. She began making her small “sugar people” to populate the village in August.
Suddenly friends began pitching in—even friends Carney had never met in person.
“Almost as soon as Linda posted that bit of bad news [on Facebook], the notes started accumulating that we would never let that happen,” explains Stephanie Middleton, a Facebook friend of Carney’s. The two found each other on Facebook through their mutual love for gingerbread baking. “We wanted to be her fund-raisers, and we would all send money to shore up this year’s competition if she would let us. I think Linda might have been a little touched to find that she has quite a fan base that was willing to send in $10, $25, $50 so she could enter this year.”
Long-time friend Trish Morse of Cohasset, Mass., has been watching Linda’s progress over Facebook as well.
“I feel as though I am really a part of her team,” Morse says. “I can’t wait to hear the judges’ reaction to her concept and to her marvelous creation. I have so much respect for the amount of creative thought and time that Linda has put into designing and making this entry.”
Small joys mean a lot this season, and judging from Carney’s sweet success so far, she’s already earned more than a first-place ribbon.
Each November, the Grove Park Inn’s Grand Ballroom becomes a village of gingerbread houses. What began as a way to attract visitors in 1993 during the traditionally low season at the Inn has gained renown as one of the premier gingerbread house competitions in the country.
Judging by a professional panel takes place across four categories: adult (18 years and older), teen (13-17 years old), youth (9-12 years old), and child (5-8 years old). Entries are judged on overall appearance, originality and creativity, difficulty, precision, and consistency of theme. Except for the base, the entries must be constructed entirely of edible materials. The maximum size of gingerbread houses in the competition cannot exceed two feet wide, two feet long and two feet high. This year, contestants began delivering their gingerbread creations starting Nov. 15. The judging began Nov. 16, with the awards presented that evening. The event is free and open to the public.
Entries in the National Gingerbread House Competition are put on display at the Grove Park Inn Resort & Spa from Nov. 18 to Jan. 3. The public is invited to view the displays any Monday through Thursday from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Additionally, a group of entries are put on display at the Grove Arcade in downtown Asheville.
The National Gingerbread House Competition awards more than $12,000 in cash and prizes. The grand-prize winner receives $3,000, plus a two-night club floor stay at the Grove Park Inn Resort & Spa, complete with dinner for two and breakfast daily at the historic hotel.
New to the National Gingerbread House Competition this year is the “Stories of Gingerbread” tour, which began Nov. 23. For the first time, guests are taken behind the scenes of the popular holiday event to learn how the intricate homes are constructed, what materials were used in the designs, and other tips and secrets.
Guests who sign up for the “Stories of Gingerbread” tour receive a commemorative lapel pin. These behind-the-scenes tours will be held at 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. Monday through Saturday. The cost for the special tour is $10 for adults and $5 for children under 12.
For more information or to reserve a spot, call 828.252.2711, ext. 4094 or visit www.groveparkinn.com.