Before it became commonplace to have an oven in your home, there were communal bakehouses that were a focal point of every community — this would be a wood-fired oven located in a central area of a town. Women and their children would gather here to bake their bread, share a moment in time, trade stories, and build relationships.
It is this sort of lost connection and spirit of community that Tara Jensen of Smoke Signals has set out to reignite and build upon.
Tara is avidly interested in interpersonal relationships, and she has dabbled in different mediums centered around this issue: studying intimacy and politics and completing her B.A. in Human Ecology, managing and building spaces that foster interaction, and working in bakeries. Throughout these experiences and explorations, however, baking remained the one constant — it encompassed all of Tara’s philosophies and ideals, and fostered her creative spirit. Realizing that baking was her true calling, Tara took the steps necessary to start her own business. She worked at several bakeries around the country, making her way through every department, from management and customer service to production and sales. Then, in 2013, saddled with passion and a wealth of knowledge, Tara jumped full-time into running her own bakery, Smoke Signals.
Smoke Signals is a wood-fired bakery, meaning everything is cooked using wood for heat instead of electricity or gas. This method fosters community by building on tradition and offering a connection with the environment, people, and food, which is easy to overlook or lose in the transition from oven to table. They offer workshops, mentorship, and community gatherings with a motto that sums it all up: bake, gather and share.
It’s obvious to see why we have a crush on Tara Jensen, right? Read more about Smoke Signals and Tara below.
Tell us a little bit about yourself, your background, your transition from an academic world to running an art gallery to producing installations to being a full-fledged baker.
I grew up in Maine and am the youngest of three, clocking in at 33 years old. I was introduced to a self-sufficient life early on. Growing up in a rural area without much luxury, the outdoors fostered my imagination. I still love the same things today that I did as a kid: a good dance party and the night sky.
I’ve always been deeply concerned about the quality of intimacy between people. In my early twenties this showed itself as an intellectual study of sexuality and politics, as I grew it evolved into making spaces for emotional interactions to transpose, and at this point in my journey, food is the vehicle to explore interpersonal relationships. I always held a day job at bakeries, alongside my protesting, art experiments and travels. When I decided to take the leap into running my own business it was like realizing I was in love with my best friend. It was an attempt to say, to this very import craft; you have been there for me for so long, I will now be there for you.
What drew you to baking? And what specifically about baking bread and pies appeals to you?
It was the culture of the bakery that drew me in, and the bread came later. I was 19 and I walked into a bakery filled with tattooed women listening to Patti Smith. I knew it was the right place for me socially. The longer I stuck with bakery life the more enamored I became with learning the trade of naturally leavened bread. I enjoy the ritual of the craft. Baking is something meaningful you can fold your life around. In a scattered, digital world, it can both ground and free you.
I’ll always be chasing the perfect loaf of bread. Each bake holds the promise of being better than the last. In this way I am a steward and a servant. The pies, however offer a much more personal expression through the use of textures, shapes and fillings. When I decided to leave the practice of “making art” it showed back up in my decorative pie crusts. It’s a happy marriage of food and art.
What motivated you to start Smoke Signals and how did you define what it would be?
I had baked my way around the country and ended up here, in WNC, learning wood-fired baking at Farm & Sparrow. I was on the verge of turning 30 and I knew that to really learn for myself I was going to have to own the entirety of the process. Initially I thought I would run my bakery just like everyone else. It didn’t take long for me to realize that art and interactive experiences were going to be an import part of what I also had to offer as a baker. Now that I’m embarking on my third year and first six months of doing this project day in and day out I realize more than ever that it’s vital to stay open, stay flexible and listen to what your business is asking from you. Currently I bake once a week, teach each weekend, offer a monthly pizza night and co-ordinate craft and baking events, such as the Smorgasboard which took place in September, with Amber Jensen of Sketchbook Crafts.
On your website you mention not letting fear or excuses get in the way of your dreams. Were these obstacles you dealt with when deciding to start Smoke Signals? Have you been faced with any other challenges? How did you move past them?
The biggest challenge I face is remaining true to my values and instincts. We often know the right thing to do long before the rubber hits the road. Moving myself out of my own way is a continual, daily effort. But there are rewards. Committing to the process brings a freedom I never knew possible. I began the entire project with five hundred bucks and a key to the local pizza shop so I could bake in the middle of the night. Although money is always a concern, it should never be a motivation or the highest priority. I journal and document my experience to deal with fear and pressure. I try my best to realize that both the best and worst days are only temporary.
Classes and community events are a huge aspect of Smoke Signals. Did they evolve out of a need, or were they always a part of your plan? Have you been surprised at the response?
When I began doing pizza nights and classes I was just playing around. I thought, “oh that’s a good idea” and I followed it. It’s crucial to investigate these kinds of hunches. At first I was floored and grateful for the response, (I still am) yet it makes sense to me because it is what I’m most excited by and that energy directly translates to others wanting to participate.
What have been your biggest achievements?
My Dad isn’t a very expressive guy. One day I called to talk to him while firing the oven. He told me “life was a dance” and then said he was really proud of me. I’ll never forget that moment.
What do you dream Smoke Signals will become and/or do?
I would like to run a more formal farm and bakery school eventually.
Describe your perfect day.
Drinking my coffee while catching up on horoscopes, baking, hanging out on a quilt somewhere near a campfire and then whittling away the wee hours of the morning in a diner with some more coffee and a few pancakes. And of course, a few good dance breaks here and there.
Where do you go for inspiration? Any go-to blogs, websites, stores, or Instagram feeds? I live and work at the bakery so my daily life is pretty monastic. I don’t make it out all that often and when I do I like to head down to the Laurel River or over to Paint Rock campground in Hot Springs. Nature always put me in the right frame of mind. Over on Instagram I always like to keep up with Farm and Sparrow, Pizzeria Bianco, Um Yeah Arts, Erin Mc Dowell and The House Pie.
Any favorite WNC makers, shops, restaurants, bars, etc. right now?
I collaborated with Amber Jensen of Sketchbook Crafts (also here in Marshall) for the past few months, getting ready for our dinner, Smorgasboard, which took place on September 19th. I am continually amazed by her work ethic, high quality craftsmanship and dedication to design. Our work together has not only informed some of my basic baking practices, but opened up a new conversation on local, hand-made goods in a global, industrial era.
And, one from left field. If you were a type of bread, what bread would you be and why?
Cinnamon raisin bread. It just tastes so good the next morning as toast!