HEMPHILL, KY — No one expects the “Hands Across the Hills” exchange to lead Leverett, Mass. voters or their Letcher County, Ky. counterparts to suddenly change their divergent political behavior.
But the effort to bridge the divide between Western Mass. and Eastern Kentucky has already resulted in one surprising development: the startup of Black Sheep Bakery, Appalachian style.
Mind you, Hamphill Community Center, a gathering place in the hamlet 13 miles from the city of Whitesburg, was already gearing up to build a brick oven in the former schoolhouse following last year’s successful “Back to Our Appalachian Roots” project. The project, focused on honing traditional skills like blacksmithing and quilting, included open-fire cooking mountain foods like Cumberland pie, chicken and dumplings, blackberry cobbler, beans and dutch-oven cornbread.
But when Gwen Johnson and nearly a dozen Letcher County neighbors traveled northward to Franklin County, Mass. last fall for a four-day cultural exchange with Leverett hosts — with plenty of potluck meals at every turn — they got a taste of New England hospitality, complete with whole-grain breads and baked goods from Amherst’s Black Sheep Deli.
A load of those cookies and other sweet treats, donated by Black Sheep owner Nick Seamon of Leverett, were sent back as leftovers for the Kentuckians’ 13-hour drive back home. Enough remained, in fact, that Johnson brought the baked goods to a community center meeting the night they arrived back home.
There, volunteers like Johnson and other participants in a community-owned Hemphill Catering Co., received a $15,000 Culture Hub grant to build a brick oven in which they planned to bake bread using locally sourced and other healthful ingredients.
“There is nothing like hearth-baked bread,” said Johnson, the community center’s secretary and treasurer. “It feeds the body and seems familiar even if you have never before tasted it.”
The catering business, said Johnson, makes pastries and some cakes, as well as cornbread and biscuits, “But making sourdough and yeast-rise loaf bread are new to us. This is a brand new effort,” and the community-owned bakery is a spin-off from the catering business, which cooks the meals for parties at Hemphill, a former coal-mining camp.
Getting what Johnson calls artisan bread or sourdough bread probably means a 50 miles and back trek. The plan is to begin experimenting with the brick oven, about 4 feet wide and 6 feet deep, using grain sourced around the region — possibly from a mill three hours south, in Asheville, N.C., but gradually trying to interest growers locally.
But what to name the new brick-oven bakery, which Johnson said will not only be staffed by volunteers, but also will be a community service outlet for defendants sentenced by the Letcher County Drug Court?
Hemphill is now “a community struggling with unemployment, addiction and poor health outcomes,” according to Johnson. “Many of its citizens, in the throes of addiction, have been incarcerated. When they emerge from their cells they find it almost impossible to find a job.” The new bakery “will be a place willing to forgive and willing to train folks who are searching for acceptance and work. Hemphill Community Center believes these folks are a latent asset of the community.”
As some of the bakery project organizers contemplated the work ahead, Johnson recalled, “Someone said, ‘I’ve always been the black sheep in my family.’” That reminded her of the whole-grain bread and baked goods she’d been introduced to from The Black Sheep deli up in Massachusetts.
“We kind of stole the name,” Johnson said. “We didn’t figure there would be any fallout, since there’s so much distance, and we had a whole plethora of sweet treats leftover from the potlucks that they gave us to enjoy on our way back to Kentucky.”
Back in Amherst, Seamon, who set up his bakery and deli in 1986, said he’s just as tickled to have the Kentucky contingent take the name back home with him as they did with the baked goods he provided. He even sent some Black Sheep T-shirts and coffee mugs down to Kentucky with the delegation of Leverett residents taking part in the trip last week.
“There are Black Sheeps everywhere,” Seamon said with a laugh, adding that his only regret was that he didn’t get to meet the Kentucky visitors last fall. And Johnson said she’s hoping to get in touch with Seamon for some Black Sheep recipes.
Meanwhile, back in Kentucky, a seven-member Black Sheep Bakery crew — which Johnson hopes will grow to include other members of the community if the bakery becomes successful — began training last week with a brick oven and sourdough expert at Smoke Signals Bakery in Marshall, N.C.
As Johnson told radio station WMMT back in February, when the community center celebrated the start of work on the oven, “Our dream is to bake pizza and locally sourced bread using healthier grains than we get around here, from flour and grains with no GMOs. We just think we have a deficit in the breadbasket here … We want to make it an abundant, healthy breadbasket.”
Photo: Bradley Johnson, a volunteer for Hemphill Catering Co. with new brick oven at Hemphill community center. Recorder Staff/Richie Davis