Folk School


Sunrise in the Great Smoky Mountains

Imagine that you had the luxury and opportunity to devote an entire week to learning how to make something, and you didn’t have any other responsibilities or distractions to keep you from your creative endeavor.   What would you want to create and can you even begin to imagine such a week with everything that there is to do in your life?

Last week I had the luxury and the opportunity to spend a week with 129 other like-minded people.  I decided to master the art of baking bread and my best friend Kate choose quilting.   We drove 12 hours to the John C. Campbell Folk School, located in the northwestern part of North Carolina, nestled in the Great Smoky Mountains within spitting distance of Tennessee.   The Folk School was started in 1925 by two women who had traveled to Denmark and studied the folk schools that were a way of life for the rural population, and decided to start a similar school in Appalachia where people could live and learn together without credits or grades.


The beautiful campus

The campus of the Folk School is extensive, and most of the students live in housing provided by the school.   Meals are served family style in a dining hall so that students can get to know each other and learn about what others are doing in their classes.   I would say most of the students were of retirement age, but many were not, and I was surprised at the number of men who attended, many with their wives.


The Dining Hall at Folk School

There are variations in the classes offered every week, and the week we enrolled classes in writing, weaving, painting, woodworking, mosaics, felt art, Blacksmithing, clay, and stained glass were offered in addition to bread making and quilting.

Classes ran from 9 am to 4:30 pm Monday through Friday, and there were optional “Morningsongs” before breakfast where local musicians and story-tellers performed.  During the afternoons after class and in the evening various events were held, like a Blacksmithing demonstration or musical performance, and the week culminated with an exhibit where all the classes showed off their finished works of art.


Kate’s Quilt

There is something very therapeutic about making bread.   I am not talking about pulling out a quick bread mix from the shelf and whipping up a loaf of banana or cranberry nut bread.   I am referring to the art of making bread from scratch, from feeding the yeast through the entire process of mixing, kneading, punching and folding, letting it rest and rise, and then baking it in an oven under the optimal conditions of temperature and steam.


Jane, Linda, and I with our sticky buns, a team effort

Our bread instructor Emily had a chemistry degree, and so we not only learned the how, but the why of the bread making process.   When you are making bread that requires what is called a “preferment”, it is a process that takes time, which is the number one reason I had never attempted it before retirement.  You combine the yeast with water and flour, and let the yeast feast on the mixture for hours before making the bread dough.   There is something very primal and satisfying about seeing your preferment rise and double in size overnight, the top laced with dozens of tiny carbon dioxide bubbles.


Yeast doing its thing

Depending upon the kind of bread you are making, once you add the dough mixture to the yeast mixture, you may need to let it rest again, and then you knead it.  Some people hate to knead, but I loved it!   It is an intensive upper body workout, and except for the ciabatta dough which is a very wet and sticky dough, I kneaded all my dough by hand.   Mixers with spiral dough hooks were available as an alternative to hand-kneading.

Another period of resting takes place, and then you pre-shape it, let it rest again, shape it and score it.   You spray it with water so that steam is present in the oven, and then you check it for doneness with a thermometer; all bread is done at 190 degrees F.   That is the temperature at which the glutton or starch has broken down.


French bread shaped and ready to be scored, sprayed and baked

There is nothing better than eating the bread the moment it comes out of the oven, and we shared most of the bread we made; some we froze to take home.   After the first day when we all made French bread together, we were encouraged to make whatever we wanted.  Emily had provided us with recipes and there were dozens of cookbooks on the shelves.  In addition to making rosemary French bread, I made focaccia, Irish soda bread, bagels, English muffins, sticky buns, and ciabatta.


My focaccia loaded with peppers and tomatoes picked from the garden outside

None were difficult to make – they just took time.   As I continue to re-imagine retirement, I find that I am most grateful for this gift of time spent on fun not work.   One of the best parts of the week was meeting so many wonderful people from around the country who attended classes at the Folk School.   Kate and I bonded with some lovely ladies from Florida, and we also got to know our fellow students in our classes.   Travel and spending time in a new place with new people is always a spirit-renewing experience, and the Folk School offers that and more because it includes the act of creation which nurtures the soul.


The six amigas

Here’s the bread-maker’s blessing, a take on an old Irish blessing, that Emily recited to us on the last day of class:

“May the dough rise to meet you, may the cloud of flour be always at your back, may the oven shine warm upon your face, the steam fall softly upon your loaves, and until we meet again, may God punch and fold you in the palm of His hands.”


My baking class buddies

To learn more about the John C. Campbell Folk School, go to:

Processing the Unimaginable

Like many of you, I am still trying to process how something like the Las Vegas massacre could occur in this country.  No one yet knows the motivation of the shooter, someone who doesn’t fit the typical mass shooter profile.  Thoughts and prayers are fine, but action is needed, and I am afraid that our so-called leaders in Washington will once again dodge any real leadership, wait out the public outrage, and do nothing because their souls have been bought and paid by the NRA.

My husband is a gun owner, and I am not against owning guns.   However, my husband strongly believes, as I do, that there is no possible need for the average, non-military citizen to own any kind of assault weapon.   They should be banned in every state.   Their only purpose is to kill and injure a lot of people quickly and efficiently.  They are an instrument of war.  I don’t buy the argument of the NRA that if legislation is passed to ban one type of gun, that opens the door for the banning of all guns.   And if you tell me you need an assault weapon to hunt deer or moose, then you’re a damn lousy hunter and you should never be allowed to hold a hunting license.

Why is it that the right of this man to legally own dozens of assault weapons outweighs the right of 59 people to pursuit life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, not to mention the hundreds of injured whose lives will never be the same?   People will argue that the guns didn’t kill these victims, this lunatic did.  But he couldn’t possibly have inflicted the horrific number of casualties without the assault weapons that he possessed and bought legally.

Any one of us or our loved ones could have been at that concert.   My daughter is a big country music fan.   Someone like this shooter could be living in my town, in my state, and someone I love dearly could be next.

Do we need to look elsewhere besides gun control for answers?   Why are there so many angry white men out there?   Women aren’t committing these mass shootings.   This guy supposedly was a millionaire so he wasn’t someone who had been screwed by society or had a grudge to bear against a group of country music lovers. He was the son of a psychopathic criminal – was it written in his DNA and was his heredity his destiny?

I don’t have answers.   All I know is that every member of the House of Representatives is up for reelection in 2018.  It’s time to start holding every single one of them accountable.   If they don’t vote for some kind of common sense gun control, we vote them out.   I‘m not yet cynical enough to believe that this country is beyond all hope of redemption.  I do believe that most of us are good and kind and strong and we need our representatives in Congress to be the same.

If there is anything that history has taught us, it’s that good can triumph evil and that we should “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”  Margaret Mead