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What it's like to judge a national gingerbread house competition

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    The Three Gifts, was the Adult 2012 Grand Prize Winner made by Ann Bailey from Cary, N.C. (The Grove Park Inn)

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    The Old Mill was picked as the Youth 1st Place winner, made by 12-year-old Lydia Gentry from Hendersonville, N.C. (Grove Park Inn)

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    The winning gingerbread house from the "child" category. (Michael Oppenheim/The Grove Park Inn)

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    The winning gingerbread house in the "teen" category. (Michael Oppenheim/The Grove Park Inn)

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    The winning gingerbread house in the "youth" category. (Michael Oppenheim/The Grove Park Inn)

What better way to mark the holiday season than with gingerbread, gingerbread and more gingerbread. 

Gingerbread was brought to Europe in 992 by an Armenian monk.  Today, gingerbread in one form or another was quite universal--be it eaten, used as decoration or created into a magnificent work of creativity.

One of the best places to see amazing feats of gingerbread is at Grove Park Inn National Gingerbread House Competition --an annual competition at the magnificent Grove Park Inn in Asheville N.C. It started 20 years ago with less than 50 houses and has grown in size to 200 plus competitors, and over the years, has attracted shows like "Good Morning America," and producers from The Food Network.

The rules are definite and unwavering. There are four categories based on age: child (5-8), teen (13-17), youth (9-12), and adult (18 – up). The creations must be 75 percent gingerbread. The entry does not have to be a house, per se; There have been rocking horses, boxes of toys, mansions with each room decorated, chandeliers sparkling: farm scenes with all the appropriate animals.  One farm scene even had a dog with the puppies nursing.  

Everything that goes into the creation must be edible or the entry is disqualified on the spot.  Yet these masterpieces are never eaten, just set out for display and admiration until the beginning of January.

There are usually eight to nine judges, which have included author and Nicholas Lodge (he made Princess Diana's wedding cake),  Colette Peters, owner of Colette’s Cakes in New York City, and Nadine Orenstein, curator of the Department of Drawings and Prints at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Each judge must focus on overall appearance, originality and creativity, difficulty, precision and consistency.  

It is harder than one initially surmises in the judging of each entry.  I speak from experience, because I have been a judge at every competition since the competition's beginning. In my career, I have worked on the "The Ed Sullivan Show," the "TODAY" show, am the author of six travel books, and in general have seen a lot, but think this is a very unique event.   

The competition attracts amateur chefs from around the country. Many have traveled hundreds of miles, transporting their gingerbread houses, which takes detailed planning. A prize is awarded to the entry that has traveled the farthest. This year competitors came from Ohio, Indiana, Wisconsin, North Carolina, Virginia but the farthest was from Westford, Mass.

On the day of the competition,  Grove Park is hectic with arriving contestants. The time is near and the aroma of gingerbread fills the air. Sugar and spices, candies and decorations, a little this and a little that combined with imagination and dedication are the ingredients that go into every gingerbread house entry.

As each entry is carefully brought into the Grand Ballroom and gently placed in its designated place, the tension and excitement is unquestionable. By late afternoon, all are in place.                                                                  

The judges arrive to begin their task – individually- by eliminating all but what they consider the 10 best in each category. A procedure has been devised where by each judge is given 4 sheets of paper -one for each category with columns and boxes for the choices. Needless to say, the occasional comments between judges are interesting. “You have got to be kidding.” “You like that one more than this one?”  “Do you really think a 5 year old could do this?” 

The judge’s first set of papers are handed in and the team of associates tallies the numbers. New pages with the results are given to the judges. The time has come to choose the finalist in each category. As you look and look, the more you look the more you see or don’t see.  

"How can that robe and shawl be made out of gingerbread?" you ask. "Those decorative jewels that look so authentic are really edible?"

It definitely takes a while and finally the judge's tallies are handed in and the results computed. The moment has arrived and the winners are announced.  Cheers, controlled yells, enthusiastic applause reverberate throughout the big ballroom. Yes, there are disappointments, but there is another year at hand. The winning entries are brought to the upfront tables, ribbons are given out, prizes are awarded and pictures are taken. 

This year's Grand Prize Winner was entry #A111, Ann Bailey from Cary, N.C.  She created a piece called the Three Gifts --a nativity scene featuring the Three Wise Men and a camel. She received $7500 in cash and prizes, and of course, bragging rights.

 Know that unquestionably, thoughts for the 2013 competition have begun.