Here’s the irony of Ann Bailey winning the National Gingerbread House Competition, known to some as the “Superbowl of gingerbread competitions,” not once, but twice: Bailey doesn’t like eating gingerbread.
Sure, she loves the smell of it and how its spices permeate any space they’re in.
But when it comes to tasting it, she guesses she hasn’t had a bite since childhood.
“I can’t stand to eat it,” she says. “When you’re building with it, it’s construction grade. It doesn’t taste all that great.”
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Now, if you’re talking about her love of gingerbread as a medium and art form, that’s a whole other matter.
Consider Bailey an ambassador of gingerbread houses, gingerbread competitions and anything that can shine a light on the craft that she adores.
The Cary resident has been entering gingerbread competitions, and judging some, too, since 2006, when a Food Network special inspired her to make her first house. It wasn’t all that great, she says, calling the gingerbread birdhouse “crummy.” Since then, she has honed her skills, perfecting her ideas, strategy and gingerbread-making materials.
It’s paid off.
She consistently ranked in the top 10 of the Omni Grove Park Inn’s prestigious competition until 2009 when she won first place. In 2012, she won the grand prize.
This year, after a one-year break, she returned to the Asheville hotel to win the whole shebang again. As the adult grand prize winner, she took home a prize package worth $7,500.
“It feels marvelous,” said Bailey, who is 60. “I try to exceed my own expectations every year. You have to do that every year to win. There are some fabulous artists there.”
The winners of the 22nd annual event were announced last month after a panel of 12 judges scrutinized more than 150 entries for overall appearance, originality and creativity, difficulty, precision and consistency of theme. Entrants are divided into four categories: adult, teen, youth and child.
The rules are simple. The entry must be made of 75 percent gingerbread and must be 100 percent edible. After that, it doesn’t matter whether there’s a holiday theme, though Bailey always makes sure her’s is connected to the holiday.
“Gingerbread is synonymous with Christmas,” she said.
Her entry this year is titled “Pawn Stars” and features a 32-piece chess set with a holiday twist. The kings are Santa Claus. One of the queens is a fairy with wings. The bishops are elves, the rooks are Christmas trees, and the knights are reindeer. The idea came to her over the summer, giving her just enough time to put it together before entering the competition in October. Some people work on their entries year-round, she said.
“I was cleaning out a closet and saw my husband’s chess board,” she said of the inspiration, the first of many ideas she considered before settling on her initial instinct. “I thought I could do Dickens characters as pieces instead of chess pieces.”
All of the pieces are made of gingerbread and a homemade gum paste that helps it become moldable. They sit atop a colorful painted wood chess board. The more color and detail there are, the more the judges are drawn to the display.
The attention to detail is impressive. Each character has an impish expression and seems to be interacting with one another. The Christmas trees have personality with a honker of a nose and toes peeking out from under the branches. The reindeer have sparkly gold antlers. Even Bailey seems impressed with her final product, having exceeded her vision for the set.
“When you’re doing each piece individually, you have no idea what it will be like when it comes together,” she said.
All entries from the 22nd annual competition will be on display at the Omni Grove Park Inn through Jan. 1. Bailey’s winning entry is in the showcase spot, housed under glass on a rotating wheel. “Pawn Stars” will stay there through next November.
Bailey is a cheerleader for the competition, especially the “top guns,” the highly skilled artists who contribute to elevating the contest’s profile and who help raise the other artists’ game. She also is a fan of local competitions, such as the contest in Cary that she’s judged for four years.
Still, she doesn’t think she’ll enter the Grove Park competition again, though she hasn’t ruled it out entirely. Two grand-prize wins is enough, more than she ever expected. But she will still head to Asheville to see the entries and attend the awards ceremony.
“My mind is usually always turning with new ideas,” she said. “You want the competition to continue.”