Visions of sugarplums may be dancing in your kids’ heads this holiday season. The Omni Grove Park Inn in Asheville NC turns those sweet dreams into reality with its annual National Gingerbread House Competition. For our family, an afternoon outing to meander among the creative confections always tops our list of favorite holiday activities. (The gingerbread cookies served by the fireplace make a yummy, festive treat, too!)
Grove Park Inn: Home to the National Gingerbread House Competition.
Every December, our family creates gingerbread houses. I’ll bet yours does, too. I admit, while I can grow a garden full of food and flowers, my artistic abilities are a bit…lacking. I buy the gingerbread-house-in-a-box from Michaels, cement the walls together with icing, add several bags of more interesting candy to the stash, whip up extra icing, and let the kids create a magical mess.
It’s a sticky tradition, but one everyone enjoys.
The first few years, the toddler-designed houses—with their globs of icing and precariously perched candy canes—seemed inspired by Salvador Dali. Now, however, the kids create elaborate Lifesaver pathways and gumdrop evergreens, adding sweet details to their rock-hard gingerbread walls. We display their creations proudly among the holiday décor.
And then, we visit the National Gingerbread House Competition at the Omni Grove Park Inn in Asheville NC, where we learn a lesson in humility.
The Grove Park Inn: Historic Destination in the Blue Ridge Mountains.
From the first foray into the Grove Park Inn in Asheville, NC, you’re transported to a Gatsby-esque era, where luxury envelops guests. Enormous granite fireplaces, an imposing lobby decked out in holiday splendor, and postcard-perfect views greet visitors, many of whom arrive to check out the sweet creations.
Along with the festive decorations, we learn history lessons mingling with the holiday treats. From stories that tell the history of the building’s inception to photos of dignitaries who visited the Grove Park Inn, we discover slices of history around every corner.
We are a family of history geeks, so we love learning about Edwin Wiley Grove, a pharmaceutical magnet, who enlisted his son-in-law, Fred Loring Seely, to oversee the design and construction of the Grove Park Inn. Using granite harvested from Sunset Mountain, 400 men worked 10-hour shifts, six days per week, to build the hotel. Less than one year after the groundbreaking, the Grove Park Inn opened its doors.
Famous Guests of the Grove Park Inn.
Soon, celebrities and dignitaries filled the guest list. Our daughter, Kristen, discovered a display dedicated to F. Scott Fitzgerald. He called the Grove Park Inn home during the summers of 1935 and 1936, while his wife, Zelda, sought treatment at a nearby psychiatric hospital. Kristen studied his most famous novel for her English class. So she loved reading about his time at the Grove Park Inn. Viewing the writing desk from his room made the author come to life for her.
Fitzgerald is only one of the famous guests who visited the Grove Park Inn. Harry Houdini, Eleanor Roosevelt, Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, Helen Keller, John D. Rockefeller, Sir Anthony Hopkins, John Denver, Michael Jordan, and many other celebrities stayed at the Grove Park Inn. Additionally, 10 presidents visited the Asheville hotel that promised “rest, relaxation, and respite.”
Gingerbread Artistry on Display at the Grove Park Inn.
While history pervades the Grove Park Inn, our mission involved all things sweet.
From peacocks preening in perfect sugar sculptures to mansions dripping with sweet shingles and delicious details, the National Gingerbread House Competition is a sweet lover’s dream. Dozens of delectable edibles displayed throughout the Grove Park Inn showcase the pastry geniuses that create art from icing and fondant.
The annual even began in 1992, with a small group of gingerbread houses built by community members. The display originated to celebrate the holidays—and nothing more.
Now in its 24th year, the National Gingerbread House Competition is one of the nation’s most celebrated—and competitive—events.
Nationally renowned food, arts, and media professionals serve as judges. The event entices top pastry experts to work their magic in sugar and sprinkles.
And magic it is.
Magically Sweet Creations at the Grove Park Inn.
From fondant farm animals to sugary skaters, the creativity and artistry of the entries leaves our poor prefab houses looking like they’re from an episode of “Fixer Upper.” The gingerbread “houses” at the Grove Park Inn barely qualify as houses.
In fact, entries into the National Gingerbread House Competition do not need to be houses at all. Gingerbread, however, is required. At least 75 percent of the main structure of the entry must contain gingerbread, and at least a portion of the gingerbread must show. Except for the base, the entire entry must be constructed from edible materials.
How to Enter Your Creative Creations at the Grove Park Inn.
Each year, gingerbread artists submit their creations into the competition. Check online in early November for the entry forms.
Judges evaluate entries based on five criteria:
- Overall Appearance
- Originality and Creativity
- Consistency of Theme
This year, judging occurred on November 21, with an awards ceremony following. The winning entries remain on display throughout the holiday season. The prizes almost seem sweeter than the sugar-iced entries: the grand prize winner receives $5,000, a two-night Club Floor stay at Omni Grove Park Inn, a dinner for two, daily breakfast for two, a Prize Package from Chef Nicholas Lodge, including a two-day class at the Nicholas Lodge School in Atlanta, GA, and a ribbon. Each of the top three winners in the four age categories receives monetary prizes. There’s even a $1,000 prize for the contestant who traveled the furthest to compete in the National Gingerbread House Competition.
Gingerbread Fun for All Ages at the Grove Park Inn.
Kids also can enter their gingerbread houses. In fact, some of the most enthusiastic displays involved gingerbread houses created by children—you can see how much fun they had creating their masterpieces! (Take pity on their poor parents. I’m sure they’re still scraping frosting off tables and vacuuming sprinkles from floors.)
Winning creations remain on display from Sunday, November 27 through January 5, 2017 Guests not staying overnight at the Grove Park Inn can view the gingerbread houses for free on Sunday after 3 p.m., as well as through Thursday. (9 a.m.-9 p.m. Monday through Thursday.)
Gingerbread Houses for Charity
The only charge for the National Gingerbread House Competition is a $10 parking fee, half of which is donated to various charities throughout the Asheville area. Since its inception in 2013, the Holiday Parking Program donated more than $190,000 to local charities.
Additionally, after drooling over the clever creations, you may find yourself with a craving for gingerbread—we always do. The Grove Park Inn offers cookies, hot chocolate, and other treats for sale in the lobby. Last year, our kids were enthralled with the life-sized gingerbread house/bar, where drinks and treats could be purchased. It was hard to resist taking a tiny nibble out of the walls. After all, the life-sized confection was crafted with edibles.
The lobby provides a perfect chance to relax with a snack by the enormous 14-foot fireplaces. We enjoy nibbling on our gingerbread people while sitting in rocking chairs by the fire. Among the festive décor, Santa’s sleigh makes a great photo op with the kids.
A Craving Ensues
While we wandered among the gorgeous, do-not-touch-or-taste gingerbread creations, a certain craving hits.
Of course, these works of art are not for consumption. (Although, you really wonder how parents keep those little fingers away from temptation!) Still, whenever we leave the National Gingerbread House CompetitionTM, I have a serious craving for gingerbread.
While our gingerbread houses may lack the finesse of the experts, we do bake some serious tasty gingerbread cookies at our house. And, with the help of a few basic kitchen tools, like a garlic press, toothpicks, and fork, we create some rather cute gingerbread people, complete with hair, bows, and outfits.
In case you’re also craving fresh gingerbread after your visit to the Grove Park Inn’s National Gingerbread House Competition, here’s my favorite recipe for gingerbread cookies. The recipe is old and weathered, and I’m not sure of its origin, truthfully. Perhaps it’s from my aunt? I can tell you, though, it’s seriously delicious. Enjoy!
Homemade Gingerbread Cookies: A Recipe.
- 3 cups flour
- 2 teaspoons ginger, ground
- 1-1/2 teaspoon cinnamon, ground
- 1 teaspoon baking soda
- ¼ teaspoon nutmeg, ground
- ¼ teaspoon salt
- ¾ cup butter, softened
- ¾ cup firmly packed brown sugar
- ½ cup molasses
- 1 egg
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- Mix flour, ginger, cinnamon, baking soda, nutmeg, and salt in large bowl. Set aside.
- Beat butter and brown sugar in large bowl with electric mixer, medium speed. Beat until light and fluffy.
- Add egg, molasses, and vanilla to butter mix. Beat well.
- Gradually add flour mixture and beat in at low speed until well mixed.
- Press dough into a thick, flat disk. Wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least four hours.
- Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.
- Roll dough flat to ¼-inch thickness on lightly floured work surface. Coat rolling pin with flour to avoid stickiness.
- Cut dough into gingerbread shapes with cookie cutters. Place 1-inch apart on ungreased baking sheets.
- Using bits of leftover dough, create clothes or details like hair for the gingerbread people. For example, place a small amount of dough into garlic press, and squeeze for “strands” of hair. Accessorize gingerbread people as desired with dough before baking, or use icing after cookies cool.
- Bake cookies 8 to 10 minutes. Cool on baking sheets for two minutes, then remove to wire racks. (I find the cookies become crunchy if left on the baking sheets for too long.)
- Cool completely, then decorate as desired.
- Store cookies in an airtight container.
The National Gingerbread House Competition takes place annually at the Omni Grove Park Inn, 290 Macon Avenue, Asheville, NC 28804. Overnight accommodations are also available during the event. For more information, call 828-252-2711.