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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
To learn more about the John C. Campbell Folk School, go to: https://www.folkschool.org/