My Gingerbread Fantasy
IT HIT ME THE SECOND I WALKED INTO THE BALLROOM: THE SMELL OF CHRISTMAS. A touch of cinnamon, a hint of peppermint, a dusting of powdered sugar -- I was surrounded by the sweet, giddy scent of childhood excess. I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. Clearly, I was on a sugar high.
After years of thinking about it, I'd traveled to the epicenter of gingerbread art: the Grove Park Inn in Asheville, N.C., where I wheeled my entry into the 14th annual National Gingerbread House Competition. I passed a tiny country cottage, a lighthouse, a Victorian cottage, a schoolhouse and a Nativity scene -- all fashioned from gingerbread, icing and candy of every size and stripe -- before I found my assigned spot on the judging tables and slid my gilded 19th-century townhouse into place.
Surrounding me were 350 elaborate creations, an overwhelming collection of color, imagination, creativity and obsession. I had stepped into a world where outwardly sane adults succumb to a guilty addiction, baffling family and friends by cutting gum into tiny roof tiles, fashioning miniature Christmas trees from pasta and stomping on Rice Krispies treats to make edible foundations.
The first step is self-awareness: "My name is Roxanne, and I'm a ginger-bread junkie."
I was exhausted, humbled, flooded with hard-won wisdom. In my rookie naivete, I had thought that maybe, just maybe, I could create a house worthy of the famed competition. Directly in front of me, I spotted an ornate Christmas conservatory with clear sugar ice sculptures and windows, gold detailing and a flawless edible Santa and toys tucked under a palm tree.
I pulled out my cellphone and checked in with one of my best friends. "I am totally out of my league," I announced, laughing.
IT STARTED INNOCENTLY ENOUGH, AS THESE THINGS TYPICALLY DO. I'd been decorating cookies for two decades, one of those ephemeral but time-consuming pursuits that goes into overdrive during the holiday season. Last year, I planned to have my annual cookie extravaganza, and to make a gingerbread replica of our new house -- until my cat ate Christmas ribbon and required a wildly expensive operation, many trips to the vet and untold hours of home nursing. I barely managed the cookies; a gingerbread house was out of the question.
For some reason, this nagged at me. Christmas cookies represented some of the best memories of my childhood, an annual break from the stress and tension of the rest of the year. Over the years, I've gotten better and better at decorating -- crafting miniature artwork out of gingerbread, icing and sparkly sugar. There are so many things I can't do, but I can decorate cookies, dammit. Shouldn't I be capable of organizing my life enough to make a gingerbread house? Okay, so maybe I overcompensated for my failure. Not only would I make a gingerbread house this year, I decided, I would enter it in the biggest gingerbread house contest in the country.
I knew going in that making such a masterpiece required a serious time commitment -- time I could and should be using to do other things. It was not lost on me that there are important books to be read (specifically the guilt pile next to my bed), books to be written, home offices to organize or thousands of other worthy pastimes. Part of me thought that devoting so much energy to gingerbread was an exceptionally self-indulgent and somewhat silly quest -- a sentiment shared by some co-workers, one of whom (a man, of course) suggested it was a case of serious sublimation. I debated with myself: If I spent a year training for a marathon ( as if !), would I begrudge myself the time and energy? After all, I loved the creativity that came with decorating cookies and the delight my friends took in the results. But in the end, it was my competition gene that put me over the edge. I couldn't resist the challenge.
THE NATIONAL GINGERBREAD HOUSE COMPETITION BEGAN IN 1993 AS A PROMOTION, after the Grove Park summer resort opened for the Christmas season. Local citizens were invited to create gingerbread houses, which were judged and remained on display at the hotel from mid-November through the New Year. Beginning in 1999, the winning houses appeared annually on "Good Morning America," and the Food Network broadcast hour-long specials of the 2002 and 2004 competitions. The humble local display became the Mount Everest of gingerbread.
The rules are simple enough: The dimensions cannot exceed two feet wide, deep or high. Every single element has to be edible, except the base. The judges are ruthless about this: Last year, one house was disqualified because the owner forgot to remove string from rock candy. (Of course, edible doesn't mean tasty. These houses are never meant to be eaten, especially after sitting around for months and months. They're strictly for show.)
"There's a lot of competitive, artsy people," said Aaron Morgan, the inn's executive pastry chef for the past decade. He has watched the entries evolve from simple gingerbread structures to elaborate scenes incorporating marzipan, gum paste and other tools of cake decorating.