Edible masterpieces: Locals compete in gingerbread art battle

St. Pete Beach's annual Gingerbread House Event featured landmarks made of biscuit-y goodness.

click to enlarge Growing every year, the Gingerbread House Event drew 24 teams Thursday. - Chris Girandola
Chris Girandola
Growing every year, the Gingerbread House Event drew 24 teams Thursday.

On Thursday, thousands of dollars were raised for the Tampa Bay chapter of the American Red Cross thanks to gingerbread house-making experts.

Yes, gingerbread.

When this reporter first heard about the Don CeSar Hotel's 20th annual Gingerbread House Event, I thought I would see someone like my Grandma Marge piping frosting along the edges of a cookie roof. But this was more Real Housewives meets Breakfast at Tiffany's meets a DJ Fresh event.

Upon my arrival to St. Pete Beach's Pink Palace, a table lined with glasses of bubbly greeted me. And near the champagne, other stations were full of brunch offerings and silent auction items, which included a bat, ball and book signed by former Tampa Bay Buccaneers cornerback Ronde Barber.

Entering the resort's Grand Ballroom, where the contest took place, I sensed more than friendly competition was in store for the 208 participants. They occupied 24 tables on a floor covered with plastic, prepping like Iron Chefs to turn blank gingerbread houses into artistic (and edible) masterpieces. X-Acto knives, screwdrivers, spatulas and even sharpened pretzels were among their "tools."

DJ Eric Harding of Grant Hemond and Associates set up along one of the ballroom's upper sections. I thought, a DJ? What's happening here? 

Wait, Great 38 TV news anchor Jenn Holloway just walked by me. 

And then, Topher Morrison, master of ceremonies, announced, "The show is about to begin. Ladies..."

With that, Harding dropped "Ice, Ice Baby" by Vanilla Ice, cuing a procession of servers that filed in with big bowls of vanilla frosting above their heads, as if they captured Frosty the Snowman. All right stop, collaborate, indeed.

Suddenly, the competitors I tried to talk to were in the zone. I was no match for their focus. 

Without the madness, though, the battle would be a veritable dreamland for a kid with a sweet tooth. The sugary homes showcased goodies like gumdrops, rock candy, Tootsie Rolls, M&M's, Red Hots, vanilla wafers and fondant (some magical source of icing I learned can be shaped in many ways), yards and yards of it.

A person dressed in a gingerbread man costume waddled his or her way around the room, stopping to groove to tunes like Taylor Swift's "Shake It Off" and Meghan Trainor's "All About That Bass."  

Participants raced in and out of the ballroom to gather glasses of champagne for their thirsty teammates, too. Kerryn Ellson was deemed "champagne runner" for the Belleair Country Club group.

"This is what I do," Ellson joked, holding six glasses in both hands. 

The Belleair Country Club adopted a French influence, highlighting the famed Roland Garros tennis venue, as well as the Eiffel Tower decked out in miniature pretzels. 

Another team featured impressive Halloween-themed haunted houses (different, considering it's Christmastime), and another created structures inspired by the song, "This Land Is Your Land."

click to enlarge The Pasadena Wives Club took home Best Themed Group for a seventh year. - Chris Girandola
Chris Girandola
The Pasadena Wives Club took home Best Themed Group for a seventh year.

Six judges, including Holloway and Morrison, shuffled around from table to table, marking their papers with comments. At one point, Tampa Bay Magazine editor and publisher Margaret Word Burnside, who judged the competition, told me, "There's a bit of disagreement going on. We have to make another round trip."

With all the red licorice attached, champagne sipped and pop music played, the victors were revealed. Winning categories ranged from Most Creative to Best Design to Best Jig Dancer, but the Best Themed Group award was the most coveted.

"While we had some incredible houses this year... this one group never ceases to amaze me," Holloway said. "Each year they get more and more creative, and this year they did something special to honor St. Pete. The winners of the Best Themed Group, the Pasadena Wives Club."

And Holloway was right.

The iconic St. Petersburg structures (the Don CeSar, St. Pete Pier, Dalí Museum, Sundial complex, Chihuly exhibit, Museum of Fine Arts, Sunshine Skyway bridge and Tropicana Field) crafted by the club, which has won the title seven years in a row, would make Salvador Dalí proud.

"This might be our last year," member Alison Lescarbeau said, "But you never know. We might be back."