These artists take their gingerbread house creations seriously. Very, very seriously.
Gingerbread house making isn’t reserved for kids and the kitchen table. Gingerbread dates back to ancient Greece, and in the Middle Ages gingerbread cookies were all the rage. When the Brothers Grimm released the tale of Hansel and Gretel, the gingerbread house took off — losing the evil witch attachment in favor of a winter-wonderland fantasy. Gingerbread house construction grew into an art form that continues today — so much so that there are yearly competitions to crown the best of the best. The National Gingerbread House Competition in Asheville, North Carolina, is the biggest, with magnificent entries that look too good to eat.
The National Gingerbread House Competition
For 25 years, artists of varying skill levels have entered The National Gingerbread House Competition. The number of competitors was highest at 289 in the early 2000s. “It was almost impossible to judge them all,” Tracey Johnston-Crum, director of public relations and community outreach at the Omni Grove Park Inn, tells Crixeo. Things have settled down over the past five to seven years, with an average of 150 entries per year combined in the adult, teen, youth and child categories. It’s a more reasonable number, allowing judges “to spend adequate time evaluating each one.”
It can’t be easy to judge the entries, as one look puts you in a state of wonder. And they’re not all gingerbread houses, which is perfectly acceptable since the competition does not limit entries to house structures. Unique designs are “welcomed and encouraged,” as long as competitors adhere to the strict guidelines. Johnston-Crum says the most common blunders that get an entry disqualified are having less than the required 75% gingerbread in the main structure and including inedible items.
It would be possible to start a piece within weeks, or even days of the deadline, but that’s not how it’s done.
Into the Gingerbread House Competition Fire
Linda Carney, a multiple award winner at the National Gingerbread House Competition, says her “gingerbread season” runs from September 1 to November 22. “There are most definitely stops and starts, especially when I am frustrated with something,” she admits. “Ups and downs, tries and fails are an everyday part of the gingerbread game.” Things don’t always go as planned, and sometimes Carney’s initial idea doesn’t work out, prompting the need to find another that will go much more smoothly. But “the process from idea to execution is a thrill, and when things work it is amazing!”
Fellow competitor Teena Ham starts brainstorming for the next annual competition when she’s driving home after the awards ceremony. During the spring and summer, she’ll make a plan and gather supplies. “I start working in August,” Ham says. “It is a fine line between starting too early and not having it hold up [in part because of humidity] and waiting too late.” She doesn’t have a recurring theme, preferring instead to pick something she enjoys or a fun idea to try, such as a Santa Claus–filled bookcase.
Beatriz Müller had never made a large gingerbread house when, in 2016, she chose to as a way to try something different than architectural cake design. She admits it was a bit overwhelming at first because she couldn’t find clear information on gingerbread construction. Using a recipe passed down from her German heritage, Müller modified it until the dough “was easy to work, did not spread when baking and was strong enough to support its own weight.”
It wasn’t enough, though, to be structurally sound. Müller’s husband, who works in construction, offered his advice, suggesting stronger dough for the beams and joints, a change to the design, and a second set of patterns wherein support beams could be interlocked into the structure. Müller worked nearly 300 hours on the gingerbread house for “pure enjoyment,” until sugar artists suggested she enter it into the National Gingerbread Competition. Her gingerbread house, containing four edible ingredients (gingerbread cookie, royal icing, gum paste and wafer paper) took home the grand prize.
Müller thinks most sugar artists/bakers enter competitions not only to show their art, but like her, “they use the competition as an excuse to work on skills they want to master… It’s not about competing against other artists; it’s about competing with themselves, to see how good they can get.”
Carney does it for the challenge of having to conceive a new, different and difficult creation.
Ham likes pushing her limits and skill level.
Whatever an artist’s reasons for submitting a piece, it’s still a competition with a grand prize of $5,000 in the adult category. And while artists may not be switching out entrants’ sugar for salt, things may not always be kosher in the gingerbread competition world.
A Hint of Scandal
Speaking with Crixeo under the promise of anonymity, a veteran of the competition alleges that fair play may not always be present. One example, according to the source, occurred when a judge saw an artist’s creation at another event and invited them to enter the competition. The entry won the grand prize, drawing suspicion over whether it was merely a coincidence or favoritism. And while many competitors remove judges from Facebook groups or pages during competition season to avoid conflicts of interest, not all do. The source hints that being in contact with judges pre-competition may be an advantage.
Between artists, things got dramatic a couple of years ago. Two of the top competitors had assigned spots next to one another, and the source says that one of them intentionally bumped the other’s piece: “She placed her tools on the base of the second piece, and when sprinkling sugar ‘snow’ on her piece, blew it on to the adjoining piece.” The artist was given the opportunity to clean up her entry. The source did not communicate whether action was taken against the sugar-sprayer.
Whether devious behavior is, in fact, happening around the National Gingerbread Competition, we may never know. But artists who aren’t interested in sabotage can seek out Gingerfriends.
Camaraderie Over Cutthroat
The Gingerfriends Facebook group specifically brings artists together to share methods, tips and recipes and to advance the gingerbread art form. It’s an open and friendly space where members can ask for advice, give updates on what they are creating, or offer encouragement to others. Members have to be supportive, and it’s expected that if you ask for information, you’re willing to share some too — and rudeness is not tolerated. Most top competitors do keep information about their creations very quiet, Carney says. But they can still help others with the logistics of gingerbread house construction.
When it comes down to it, group members are using roughly the same ingredients and methods of working with gingerbread. What separates artists who enter the National Gingerbread Competition, Carney says, is skill and talent.
On November 20 judges Nicholas Lodge, Chef Mark Seaman of chocolate manufacturer Barry Callebaut, Nutritionist Cheryl Forberg from The Biggest Loser, and Metropolitan Museum of Art Curator Nadine Orensteinis had the difficult task of choosing the 2017 winners. The competition display will be open to the public through January 4, 2018.