An Indelible, Edible Fantasy & Ashley Howard: “The Gingerbread Lady”
Ever since Hansel and Gretel walked into the dark recesses of little boys’ and girls’ psyches around the world, the gingerbread house has fired the imaginations of children and adults alike. Who wouldn’t love a story where a little brother and sister face the horror of parental abandonment and the terror of captivity by a hideous, cannibalistic witch only to outwit the old hag, push her in an oven and discover enough treasure and jewels to live happily ever after? Add that the kids eat all the gingerbread, cake and candy they could ever possibly want and you have a perfect fantasy to feed our hungry human hearts. The story will live forever.
Whether you remember the particulars of the Brothers Grimm fairytale, a gingerbread house has represented something magical for generations. Around the globe, communities hold events and competitions that feature gingerbread houses as part of their yearly holiday festivities.
The Lowcountry is no exception. This November and December, the Westin Savannah Harbor Golf Resort, in partnership with the Savannah Harbor Foundation, will sponsor the 14th Annual Gingerbread Village Competition. The theme is “Winter Wonderland.” The village will be displayed in the Westin lobby and is free and open to the public from November 28th –December 30th, 2015.
Ashley Howard—last year’s gingerbread competition winner—will return to the Westin as a juror for this year’s competition. Her journey to gingerbread stardom is as fantastical as the medium she used to get there.
In 2003, Ashley Howard turned her TV to the Food Network, which was televising the 11th national gingerbread house contest, held at the Grove Park Inn in Asheville, North Carolina. She taped the program. She’d never made gingerbread in her life. She didn’t have a culinary background. She did have a fascination with gingerbread houses and she pursued it.
For three years she re-ran the tape, studying techniques and details. She researched books, searching for the perfect house to use as a model. She found a picture of the Fernie Castle Tree house located in Fife, Scotland. This was the house.
On August 15, 2006 Ashley began work on her very first gingerbread house. She spent 650 hours working on the project, including constructing a wood plank model as her working pattern. The competition was in November.
She described loading her 24’ x 24” x 24” creation, anchored on a platform as competition rules required, into her PT Cruiser. With her sister, she headed from Florida to Asheville, N.C. When they arrived at the Grove Park Inn entrance, she placed her house on a luggage trolley and wheeled it past a crowd who oohed and aahed. She was secretly hopeful until she realized her enthusiastic reception was indiscriminately offered to each of her 300 plus competitors as they rolled their gay and colorful creations into the exhibit space. Ashley’s house was brown with a little white snow and a bit of evergreen. Her heart sank.
Ashley is a storyteller. She described the stomach-churning process of sitting in the stands all day, watching as eight judges meticulously examined each of the entries. “I really felt ashamed of my plain brown house. Then one of the judges broke off a little piece of mine and took it somewhere to test what it was because the regulations require everything visible has to be edible. It was, but the process was completely nerve wracking. I just wanted to disappear. “
At the end of a very long day, they announced the winners. The Top Ten contestants were called out over the loudspeaker. Ashley heard her name. Then prizes were given to the 4th, 3rd, 2nd, and 1st prizewinners. She was gratified to have made the top ten; she was ready to go. Then the announcer called out the grand prizewinner: ASHLEY HOWARD. She won the national competition on her first try.
She won the grand prize the next year. Ashley said, “I’m not good at drawing or painting—my sister is the artist and that’s what she does—but I intuitively understand form and how things fit together. It’s like sculpting.” Ashley developed edible ginger clay she uses to model that air-dries to a rock hard finish. She generously shared it online and now it’s a staple in the competitive world of gingerbread creations. Ashley may downplay her creative gift. The judges don’t. The entries are judged in five categories: overall appearance; originality and creativity; difficulty; precision; and consistency of theme.
After other years and other prizes, in 2011 she won her third Grand Prize at the national competition in Asheville. “I was beginning to hear a collective moan from the other contestants when I pulled up to the Grove Park Inn, so I decided it was time to take a break.” But Ashley wasn’t ready to pack in her scroll saw, dental tools and talent; to her many fans she is “the gingerbread lady.” In 2014 she entered the Savannah Harbor Gingerbread Competition. Her entry was “The Mercer House,” an historic brick mansion on Bull Street in Savannah. She won.
Ashley’s gingerbread houses have been featured on Good Morning America, TLC and HGTV. She is currently working on a book about cookie decorating and creating an instructional, online blog. She also works with her sister restoring human-size houses. Still, we all hope to see what’s next from “the gingerbread lady.”
See the magical world for yourself:
2015 Savannah Harbor Gingerbread Village's “Winter Wonderland”
November 28th-December 30th (located in the Westin lobby)
Presented by: The Westin Savannah Harbor Golf Resort & Spa and The Savannah Harbor Foundation. Free and open to the public. For more information go to: www.savannahharborfoundation.com/gingerbread.
2015 Gingerbread Village Competition