ASHEVILLE, N.C. — It was something like a confectionary American Idol. By 4:30 p.m. Monday, contestants and the families of contestants were gathered outside of the Omni Grove Park Inn's Grand Ballroom, waiting to enter — hoping to win.
Inside were dozens of sculptures rendered in sugar and flour, all vying for first place in the hotel's 25th Annual National Gingerbread House Competition. There were houses with clear panes of sugar for windows, revealing glimpses of frosted Christmas trees inside.
In one case, a tiny bakery was crafted with a Lilliputian stove inside, its door open, revealing buns baking inside. In the miniature kitchen, a jar sat on the counter, holding the tiniest wooden spoons imaginable.
And even that wasn't enough to land the little gingerbread bakery on the winner's table.
The competition this year was clearly stiff. There were 170 entries from 17 states across the nation, with another entry coming from Ontario, Canada.
"One of the things we found exciting about this year in particular is that a large number of previous grand-prize winners came back to compete," said Tracey Johnston-Crum, director of public relations for the Grove Park Inn. "The bragging rights to take home the 25th award is kind of a big deal."
Bakers compete in four categories — child, youth, teen and adult — with a roster of professional judges grading each entry on criteria including consistency of theme and creativity.
All creations must be 75% gingerbread and completely edible, including the base and adhesives. "We even have a judge who drills into things to make sure we know exactly what they're made of," Johnston-Crum revealed.
The level of competition took a step up this year, said Johnston-Crum, who noted that among the adult entries, half-points separated some of the top 10 contestants.
The children also came to win.
"A lot of times when we get a child entry, it was done with lots of love, but maybe not so much technique," she said. Not so this year, where gingerbread houses included a fanciful castle, Santa's gift shop and a grand ballpark, complete with gumdrop lights and a sugary scoreboard.
Bettina Hoeninger had traveled to Asheville from Fredericksburg, Va., with students from several of her high school German classes. Together, they had submitted two entries into the teen competition.
Hoeninger's classes had won the category the past four years, she said. But she expressed doubts over whether they'd win again. "The competition is a bit harder than in previous years, I have to say," she said.
When the winners were called, Team Courtland High School German 1-3 and Team Courtland High School German 4 and AP had won second and third place, respectively.
"I'm very happy," she said. "Not disappointed."
She said the level of competition would inspire her to try harder next year. "That's what competition's about, right?"
Ann Bailey, of Cary, won first in the adult category with "The Three Ghosts," her rendition of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol.
More sculpture than house, the piece featured a number of the holiday story's fanciful characters, including a gingerbread Ebenezer Scrooge and a foreboding Ghost of Christmas Future, pointing with a gnarled finger complete with a long, black fingernail.
To create the set upon which the characters were posed, Bailey sculpted books with ginger gel, a proprietary blend of gingerbread flour, gelatin, "and a few other ingredients that are secret," she explained.
Some of the books were slightly open as if dropped there, displaying within their intricate covers delicate pages made of edible wafer paper, which is typically rice-based.
Despite her level of expertise, Bailey felt overwhelmed by her win, especially considering the talent she was up against, she said.
Her secret? "Just to have fun. I'm an artist and I wanted to do an art piece, not just a house."
"That's just who I am," she said of the level of detail. "If I do a piece, I want to make sure that I capture every single little bit so it tells a story. You don't have a hand without fingernails, and those little details really count for a lot."
Sharon Fahrer, sitting at the edge of the crowd, did not have a dog in the fight. She said she was there for the sheer joyful spectacle of the gingerbread competition.
She likened the pomp and circumstance, the anticipation in the air, to the feeling the night before the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York, where she lived before moving to Asheville 21 years ago.
"You can watch the balloons being blown up, and it's such a New York Thanksgiving event," she said. "To me, this is the Asheville equivalent — how exciting it is to see all the gingerbread. It's that exciting vibe."
Winners of the 25th Annual Gingerbread House Competition
1st: Coble Adams, Raleigh, N.C., "Ginger Baker."
2nd: Ms. May's and Ms. Keena's Kindergarten Class, Asheville, N.C., "The Three Little Pigs."
3rd: Mrs. Leatherwood's First Grade Class, Black Mountain, N.C., "Our Treasures."
1st: Mrs. Choi's Class, Asheville, "The Dog Daze of School."
2nd: Foral and Smith Kids, Greenville, S.C., "The Balloon Poppers."
3rd: Gumdrop Girls, Sherrills Ford, N.C., "Christmas Over the Rainbow."
1st: Gabriella Arthur, Easley, S.C., "Family."
2nd: Courtland High School German 1-3, Fredericksburg, Va., "December 23rd."
3rd: Courtland High School German 4 and AP, Fredericksburg, Va., "A King's Retreat."
1st: Ann Bailey, Cary, N.C., "The Three Ghosts."
2nd: Glenda Tant, Lebanon, Tenn., "Christmas in Venice."
3rd: Beatriz Muller, Innisfil, Ontario, Canada, "At Water's Edge."