By Jacob Flannick
For as long as she can remember, Nanette Davidson has had a fondness for working with her hands. As a little girl, she would admire her grandmother’s cooking, preserving the recipes she passed down. And as a young woman, she became a craftsmaker of sorts, working as a professional baker and rug weaver.
Over the years, her culinary talents have proven influential, helping shape the very craft school where she learned to bake bread. Overseeing the cooking program at the John C. Campbell Folk School, a nearly century-old institution in the southwestern corner of the state, Davidson has helped to arrange several hundred cooking classes and to prepare countless menus and dishes.
After years of gathering and testing recipes prepared in the school’s dining hall, she has put together an extensive cookbook the school published this past summer that she says is meant to celebrate the seasons and encourage people to get back into their kitchens.
“Food is very powerful,” says Davidson, one of several artists in residence at the school. “We want people to recognize what’s unique to this area.”
Depicting a bucolic scene on its cover, The Folk School Cookbook: A Collection of Seasonal Favorites from John C. Campbell Folk School comprises more than 200 recipes, along with photographs of not only food but also the school and its serene environs. (The pictures were taken by the school’s marketing manager, Keather Gougler, who Davidson says was instrumental in designing the cookbook.) While it is not the first time the school has published a cookbook, the new, hardback one features a broader range of recipes and organizes them according to season, including dishes served over the years in the dining hall and on special occasions. Along with lighter fare, there are traditional Appalachian foods using regional ingredients: apples, black walnuts, pork and sorghum. There are vegetarian, gluten-free and vegan recipes, too.
“When you’re turning the pages of the book, you’re going on a seasonal cruise through the year,” Davidson says, describing the cookbook as a way to “help yourself become in season with the place where you live.”
Born in Johnson City, Tenn., Davidson, 60, arrived at the school in the mid-1970s, taking weaving and, eventually, homesteading classes. She would return after meeting her husband, Jan Davidson, who became the school’s longest-serving executive director, retiring just last year.
The school sits on hundreds of acres just outside Brasstown, an unincorporated community near Murphy. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, it was founded in 1925, at the time resembling more a farmstead. Several decades later, its focus evolved as it became more of a craft school offering intensive, weeklong classes. And, in the late 1990s, the school officially began offering cooking classes, opening a kitchen studio with a wood-fired oven and an open hearth.
These days, the school attracts roughly 6,000 students each year. They come from around the country and elsewhere, spending a week on campus to learn things like banjo playing, blacksmithing, jewelry making and storytelling. Some 40 cooking classes are offered each year, too, from charcuterie and cheese making to home brewing and wood-fired oven baking.
As for students’ eating habits, they are varied, too. For its part, the dining hall has sought to accommodate such variety, offering a vegetarian buffet and gluten- and salt-free foods. Meals are served three times a day, with family-style table service. “While plenty is all around you at the folk school, nowhere does the gratitude flow more freely than at our communal tables,” Jerry Jackson, the school’s executive director, says in the cookbook’s foreword.
Such diversity is reflected on the pages of the cookbook. “This collection is a little bit mountain, a little bit Southern and a little bit international, too,” Davidson writes in its preface.
For Davidson, compiling the recipes and preparing the book represented a “huge labor of love.” She sifted through recipes accumulated by the dining hall over the years, scaling them down significantly, then preparing and rewriting them for home cooks.
Asked whether she prefers some recipes over others, she suggests that she considers them all tasty in their own way. But, she adds, “Some of them I love more than others.”
To learn more about opportunities at John C. Campbell Folk School, visit FolkSchool.org. The Folk School Cookbook: A Collection of Seasonal Favorites from John C. Campbell Folk School is available in the school’s Craft Shop or online.