Tara Jensen is sweet and soft-spoken, at least over the phone.
She started baking in college at a small school off the coast of Maine called College of the Atlantic, where she studied philosophy and art while living on a farm with 300 others. There was a small bakery in town called Morning Glory.
“I remember going in and seeing all these super awesome, kind of punk rock women wearing all black, with tattoos and listening to Patti Smith. And I just socially wanted to be in the space. I was like, ‘these are my people’. So I asked if I could have a job here, and they were like ‘um, sure.’ "
Tara was 19 at the time, and maintained her job there throughout all of college.
“When I left I found that I could always travel and always go into a bakery and ask for work and make connections socially that way.”
She ended up baking at six different bakeries across both the east and west coasts throughout her 20’s. And at some point she realized this was going to be a life long journey of learning a craft.
When she turned 30 four years ago, she decided to merge her interests in art and farming with bread into one thing.
“That’s to me what Smoke Signals is—a semi-amorphous project.”
Smoke Signals is Tara’s embodiment of the convergence between baking, art, self-acceptance, and community engagement.
What led you to pursue these passions in baking, and especially baking as an art form?
“It was always about doing something with my hands. That was very important and appealed to me while I was doing all of this theoretical work. And in the 90’s culture, it was about knowing how to make and grow food for yourself.”
She’s had teachers and bakers along the way who have been influential in connecting her with wood-fire baking, which is what she does now.
“The people who owned the Red Hen bakery in Vermont—they were almost like my baking parents. One thing I’ve always appreciated about bakeries is that they have a familial sort of vibe to them."
For Tara, the storytelling component came naturally.
“Bread was never exactly the focus of what I was doing. It was always the people who were making it, and the rest of their lives. Bread was the thing that we did together and especially while working in a group, you’re talking about your life the whole day with your co-workers while doing something very physical. I enjoy that kind of labor.”
When she initially started writing captions under her Instagram photos, it seemed natural to include a personality or a story. Her artmaking has always dealt with sexuality, gender, pop-culture. To her, it always felt like a natural way to format the physical baked goods.
Can you explain the role of Smoke-signals as a means for sharing your experiences with a wider audience? Is there any kind of specific focus you have in your communication efforts?
“Most of my posts deal with intimacy in some form—whether it’s intimacy between me and the food I’m creating, me and the ingredients, me and somebody I’m dating, or me and my family. For me, baking is a time where I process my emotions."
She’s always thinking about that while she’s putting things together, and especially doing so while listening to pop music.
“It works because everybody has those feelings, and everybody goes through things romantically. We all sort of know those stories and we identify with certain parts of them.”
She believes people know how to bake inherently, that it’s part of our innate knowledge.
“A lot of the work we do together in the workshops is just trying to uncover that. Everyone can do it, and understand it. It’s part of who we are, and it’s the same thing about love. Everybody has a story about it and can understand it and wants to know how to have more of it.”
Can you talk to me about using social media “authentically”? What does this mean to you?
“I think I would say I definitely post about a range of emotions that I’m having. The personal commentary is very authentic. I don’t often share photos of my baking failures, so maybe I could do better at that.” She laughs.
“I live at a wood-fire bakery, out in the country, in a rural setting. It’s been a bakery for 20 years, and it’s well worn. I’m just documenting what’s here, and that’s part of the idea behind the workshops too—it’s about opening the door and letting people in."
It’s kind of like a one-room schoolhouse, she says. Rustic.
“It’s not that I’m against styling, but I just use the look of the place here to be a backdrop for the things that I’m making. So there’s no real cover-up of stains, or peeling paint, or rusting tin. That’s part of what this landscape looks like in general—so I try not to alter that very much.”
Tell me about using baking as a medium for self-acceptance and community engagement? If that is the ultimate goal, how do your social media channels help achieve that?
“The majority of people that come here find me through Instagram, so the way I think about it is really friends that I have not met yet. Social media allows you to have access to looking into peoples lives that you would otherwise have community with, but they’re far away.”
She thinks taking a global approach to community is important, and that despite what she does for her own town, she thinks of community as part of a broad spectrum.
“I think that part of it is that bread is made all over the world. It’s accessible to people to be able to document their baking process and share it.
Initially, she says, there was a lot of recipe sharing.
“If I had some bread that didn’t come out well I would post it and maybe someone from the UK would say ‘oh you should have done this’. It’s more helpful than going to a textbook for an answer."
Tara lives alone, a monastic lifestyle as she calls it. For her, social media has been a way to connect with bakers from all over the world.
“We get to share practical knowledge, compare and contrast what we’re doing. Us bakers do have a tight-knit scene on ‘the gram’."
Have you experienced any kind of challenges in your field of work?
“I definitely started the bakery as a project on a shoestring. Figuring out funding and momentum over the years has definitely been an issue, but we’re doing well now—and it’s about to be the five-year mark. The advice I might give is that when you’re starting something—it’s like throwing spaghetti at the wall. Some parts of it are gonna stick and others are gonna fall away.”
Having an experimental attitude for the first chunk of time, is critical, she says. And it took her a while, she admits, not just to mimick what others had done, but to find her own voice.
“I’m a pretty firm believer in that if there’s a will there’s a way. Crowdfunding has been really helpful at certain junctures, but valuing yourself is the most important thing. That just comes with time and practice.”
Currently, Tara teaches about baking, does a small amount of baking for her community and is currently working on a book.
Can I ask you about the book?
"It’s called 'A Year In the Life of a Baker', and it goes month by month through a year in my life. It starts with a crappy break-up...It’s so silly but then I meet this (other) guy halfway through—which I literally did. So it’s a lot about food and kind of love and figuring out dating. And I’m in my mid 30’s so it’s a hilarious thing. It’s a pop-culture commentary on romance.”
And for Tara, it’s clear that romance manifests itself in many ways.
Each chapter has some kind of a food scene, and there are recipes at the end for dishes like pancakes, waffles, bread of course. It’s expected to be published in February of 2018.
At the end of our conversation, I tell her I’m taking a tip to Asheville for spring break with my mom, and that I’d love to stop by.
“You are so welcome to come,” she says.
I check her workshop calendar for March. Every single class is sold-out.