Tara Jensen ’07 is the proprietor of Smoke Signals bakery, located near Asheville, North Carolina.Tara Jensen ’07 is the proprietor of Smoke Signals bakery, located near Asheville, North Carolina. Credit: Nicole McConville

Tara Jensen hosts a monthly pizza night, and every time she’s sure that no one will come, and every time, nearly 100 people show up, finding their way to the town of Marshall, North Carolina, then heading six miles northwest on Route 70 along the French Broad River, winding around the knoll called Walnut, and stopping at the dirt driveway leading to her compound, which consists of an algae-covered pond, a shack in the woods, a brick oven, and two pitched-roof houses, one of which is a bakery that goes by the name of Smoke Signals. People out here are getting by on their passions—but just barely. There are still women in this area who make lace and sing ballads. Fiddle players, weavers, herbalists.

Baker Tara Jensen ’07 prepares bread. Her bakery, Smoke Signals, is featured in the February 2016 edition of Bon Appetit Magazine.Baker Tara Jensen ’07 prepares bread. Her bakery, Smoke Signals, is featured in the February 2016 edition of Bon Appetit Magazine. Credit: Nicole McConville

“At a moment when ‘artisanal’ has gone the way of cliché, Jensen actually embodies it.”

Some of the people who arrive for pizza night live nearby and just walk over the hill to Jensen’s house. Many come from Asheville, 16 miles south. Others drive three or four hours from Georgia or Tennessee. They’re here for the pizza, blackened from the wood-fired oven, misshapen from the slow fermentation of the dough. They’re also here for the sense of community: people sprawled on picnic blankets around an outdoor hearth, drinking six-packs and watching the sun go down. But mostly they’re here for Jensen, a 33-year-old guru for an era in which naturally leavened bread has become something of a religion. To aspiring bakers and established chefs and food geeks and fawning journalists, she represents an elusive ideal: the young breadmaker who structures her life around the rhythms of a wood-burning oven, not the demands of a high-volume production facility. At a moment when “artisanal” has gone the way of cliché, Jensen actually embodies it. Her dedication shows in each bread and pie, which she patterns with intricate handmade stencils and cutout shapes.

Tara Jensen ’07 prepares dough. Her North Carolina bakery, Smoke Signals, is the focus of a feature-length article in the February 2016 issue of Bon Appetit Magazine.Tara Jensen ’07 prepares dough. Her North Carolina bakery, Smoke Signals, is the focus of a feature-length article in the February 2016 issue of Bon Appetit Magazine. Credit: Nicole McConville

Unlike at most other bakeries, gallery-worthy sweets are not Jensen’s goal; they’re the medium. Her aspirations are deeper and, well, a little more abstract. The bakery is a way for her to grow as a person. To share stories. To connect. Through breadmaking, she believes, people can learn to trust their intuition, to accept themselves for who they are. Baking is not the essential truth about Jensen. She’s just here, having an experience.

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