A new cookbook tells the culinary story of John C. Campbell Folk School

CULINARY CHRONOLOGY: In the recently released 'Folk School Cookbook,' Nanette Davidson explores the history and community-focused ethos of the John C. Campbell Folk School through its recipes and food traditions. Photo by Keather Gougler

What do coq au vin, falafel and dandelion jelly have in common? Answer: They’re all dishes that help make up the culinary history of the John C. Campbell Folk School, and they’re all featured in the school’s latest cookbook.

Released in late July, The Folk School Cookbook: A Collection of Seasonal Favorites from John C. Campbell Folk School is the third compilation of recipes the Brasstown school has published since it was established in 1925 by Olive Dame Campbell and Marguerite Butler. (Favorite Recipes of the John C. Campbell Folk School came out in 1971, followed by Recipes for Creative Living in 1991.) The hefty, self-published volume beautifully shares a sense of the school’s Danish folkehøgskole, or folk high school, ethos through lush color photographs and seasonally organized recipes neatly interspersed with concise, informative text.

Fostering community through preparing and enjoying food together is central to the folkehøgskole concept, says author Nanette Davidson, who began her relationship with the folk school as a teenager in the 1970s. Folkehøgskole encourages a cooperative, noncompetitive learning environment where students feel free to try new things without pressure to achieve perfect results.

“The process, to us, is as important as the end product,” says Davidson. “Meal times are really important for helping people continue to build this feeling of community.”

After her initial, life-altering experiences as a young person at the folk school, Davidson went on to be a production craftsperson and weaver as well as a cook, food preserver and gardener at the school. In 1999, her husband, Jan Davidson, who served as executive director of the school for 25 years, added culinary courses to its existing crafts curriculum.

SEASON’S GREETINGS: The Folk School Cookbook is arranged seasonally, with many photographs sourced from a backlog of images taken over the years by communications director Keather Gougler for the school’s course catalogs. Photo by Keather Gougler

“I was given the task to create the cooking program and help outfit the studio with all the equipment we needed and design the program and source instructors and all that kind of stuff,” says Nanette. Since then, she has also worked closely with the dining hall chefs, who serve three meals a day to students housed on-site for the weeklong programs at the remote Western North Carolina campus.

In compiling the cookbook, Davidson drew on her nearly two decades of experience in selecting and creating recipes for classes, as well as her relationships with the folk school’s dining hall staff from the 1970s to the present. She also sourced historic recipes from the school’s previous two collections. “So the story kind of unfolds as you read the recipe and chapter introductions and sidebars,” she says. “I know people sometimes just look at the pictures and maybe cook a recipe, but the words kind of help tell the whole story as well.”

As one might expect of a nearly century-old craft school in Appalachia, there are a number of tried-and-true comfort food recipes to be found, including one for whole-wheat bread that’s been served weekly in the dining hall for at least five decades, plus buttermilk fried chicken, apple upside-down cake, sorghum-glazed baked ham and the like. But many of the dishes feel fresh, light and global — grilled tempeh and shiitake salad, masoor dal and Moroccan chicken stew, for example.

This diversity, says Davidson, reflects the school’s beginnings as an Appalachian farm school and its evolution into a craft school with a broad-ranging curriculum and multicultural base of students from all over the nation and world  A major development was the addition of meatless entrées to the dining hall’s family-style meals. “We recognized that there are a lot of amazing vegetarian foods in international cuisines — Indian, Mediterranean and other parts of the world where meat is not consumed as wholeheartedly as it is here in the American South.”

The folk school culinary curriculum currently offers 38 weeklong intensives per year and four weekend classes. “We just run the gamut of any kind of cookery technique we think is interesting,” says Davidson, listing courses in cheesemaking, charcuterie, chocolate-making, fermenting and home preserving, wood-fired oven management and ethnic cuisines ranging from French to Indian to Scottish.

Cooking instructor Barbara Swell, one of many Asheville culinary professionals who teach (and attend) classes at the folk school, consulted on and helped edit the cookbook. “I just love it,” she says. “My own shelves are crowded with cookbooks — some I refer to, some are old friends — and this Folk School Cookbook is one that inspires me often, because the recipes are for the sorts of things whose ingredients most home cooks are likely to have in their pantries.”

Notable is the book’s rich variety of photos depicting not only the food, but also daily life on campus throughout the seasons. Many of the images are the handiwork of folk school marketing and communications director Keather Gougler, who dipped into a huge backlog of gorgeous photography she’d done for course catalogs over the years. Gougler was also responsible for the cookbook’s design and layout.

The book, which is now in its second printing, has been available at the school’s shop and online, as well as at Malaprop’s and Villagers in Asheville and City Lights in Sylva. But Davidson would like to see it go farther afield. “We want people to learn about this folk school concept and how sweet it is,” she says. “This is a way to try and embrace strangers — people don’t know each other when they come into this environment, and they are literally thrown together. … But they really get to know each other pretty well in a week, and it changes people’s lives.”

For details on the John C. Campbell Folk School and The Folk School Cookbook, visit folkschool.org.


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