Monday, August 30, 2010

Bad Eggs: Not in this Gluten Free Bakery

Long ago, long before our celiac diagnoses, and long before we ever imagined we would be running a gluten free bakery, we developed a distrust of the food supply. It was almost exactly 17 years ago that our oldest son lay in the pediatric ICU of Boston Children's Hospital, barely hanging on to life. He had contracted an E.coli 0157 bacterial infection, and of the 13 children also with E.coli infections, he was the only one that lived. We never definitely determined the source of his infection, but it was most likely a nasty hamburger from a diner in Maine that left me doubled over in abdominal pain for two days before he fell sick.

I must admit that every time I read about an E.coli outbreak or a food safety recall, I get flashbacks to the Pediatric ICU and the horror of being told that our four year-old son would most likely die. You’d think after 17 years, things would be a lot better, that citizens would have far greater food safety regulations. We don’t.

The most recent recall of 550 million eggs, potentially tainted with salmonella bacteria really got my attention. We use a lot of eggs, and believe me, I am so glad we buy fresh eggs, and we buy local. We could be buying our eggs for half the price if we got them from a place like Hillandale Farms in Iowa with 2,000,000 hens. I don’t know about you, but even the thought of a 2,000,000 hen operation makes me shudder. We know and understand our local ingredient suppliers, and it is well worth the additional cost to ensure the safety of the products we produce.

I’m also really glad we use whole eggs after reading that the potentially tainted eggs (every day 2,000,000 more eggs roll out of the Hillandale plant alone) are being redirected to “breaking plants,” where they will be pasteurized and turned into liquid eggs to be used in ice cream, mayonnaise, cookies, cakes, breads, pet food, food services and restaurants. Commercial bakeries (but NOT OURS,) are one of the biggest users of liquid eggs. According to the USDA, pasteurization will undeniably kill the bacteria. But I still find it horrifying that knowingly tainted eggs are being sold into the food supply. It also doesn’t make me feel much better to know that the suspect eggs will be segregated from other eggs and subjected to a second inspection to make sure they are salmonella free. If pasteurization is 100% effective, why do we need a second inspection?

According to MSNBC chief medical editor, Dr, Nancy Snyderman, the FDA cannot mandate that the farms get rid of the tainted eggs. She also suggests that the USDA and FDA need to get together to protect our food supply. I couldn’t agree more. Getting food safely from farms to table is one more reason to BUY LOCAL

Friday, August 20, 2010

Gluten Free and The Man

Before founding Against The Grain, we'd done a number of different things: we’d worked in academia, big business and small business, and sold our souls on Wall Street. Despite over three decades of work experience, nothing much had prepared us for the kinds of issues we deal with as a wholesale gluten free food manufacturer. Fundamentally, we jumped into this business for two reasons: 1) we developed a premium bread product that we thought should be available to all who wanted it; and 2) we didn’t want to work for “The Man” ever again—we wanted to build a business with a conscience and provide a positive, growth-oriented work environment.

The other day I read a story in The New York Times about the striking workers at Dr Pepper Snapple Group Mott’s apple juice plant near Rochester, NY. Talk about “The Man!” Despite reporting record profits (net income of $555 million in 2009,) management is attempting to cut its labor costs by reducing workers’ annual salaries by $3,000, freezing pensions, eliminating pensions for new hires, reducing retirement
contributions, and making employees pay more for health benefits. The real corker, however, was a union bargainer who said of the plant manager, “He said we’re a commodity like soybeans and oil, and the price of commodities go up and down. He said there are thousands of people in this area out of jobs, and they could hire any one of them for $14 an hour.” Boy, I can’t wait to drink apple juice made by people treated like soybeans.

Sometimes I wonder whether customers really care (or even think) about the people behind the products they eat. A lot of attention has been given to fair trade, and the market has shown that consumers are interested in buying imported foods for which the workers are fairly compensated. But, does anyone think about production workers in an apple juice plant or production bakers in gluten free bakeries? Do consumers care if their food is made by workers who don’t make livable wages and work without any
benefits? Is cheap gluten free food more important than food made and handled by caring workers? I sincerely believe that there is a certain energy, a sense of mission that goes into every product we produce. We’re not cutting corners on any of our ingredients, and believe me, in a GF bakery, caring workers are very much one of the ingredients.

I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Journey Into The World of Gluten Eaters

From time-to-time, I believe it is a good idea to serve gluten free fare to gluten-eaters. That is what happened last night at the Taste of Vermont reception in the Russell Senate Office Building in Washington, DC, hosted by Senator Patrick Leahy. A group of Vermont specialty food producers journeyed to the nation’s capital to sample their products, and others sent their products for inclusion in the menu. About 400-500 guests ate, drank, and were quite merry.

We weren’t the only gluten free bakery—West Meadow Farms Bakery from Essex Junction ( sent samples of yummy granola, and other companies with gluten free fair like Cabot Cheese, Maple Grove, Dakin Farm, and Bove’s of Vermont were represented as well. At our table, we gave out samples of our two new pizza flavors: pesto and cheese. The wheat-eaters raved about both flavors, and many declared it the best pizza in the place, but people were most effusive about our new 12-inch nut-free pesto pizza. A number of tree-nut sensitive guests were thrilled to be able to eat pesto pizza as well.

At another table, our baguettes were served as bruschetta, topped with Maple Grove Balsamic Vinaigrette (, ) fresh mozzarella from Maplebrook Farm ( of Bennington, Vermont Hydroponic tomatoes ( ) and a leaf of fresh basil. Those tomatoes, folks, were the most unbelievably “real” hydroponic tomatoes I’ve ever tasted. The bruschetta were gorgeous and disappeared almost instantly; we sent 24 baguettes to the caterer! In that huge crowd, I think I talked to less than ½ dozen who were gluten free. Everyone else ate and effusively complimented our baguettes, no small feat for a gluten free bread. We’ve always prided ourselves on our bread with “the look, taste, and texture” of real bread, but it is always a good idea to do a reality-check with gluten-eaters.

Our pizza station was located right next to Rock Art Brewery beer (that’s the brewer of Vermonster beer, which caused such a flap,) but alas, it was not gluten free. But, I did discover that the Trapp Family Lodge in Stowe, which has brand new micro-brewed beer, Trapp Lager, is working on a gluten free beer. It can’t get much better than a gluten free Vermont micro-brewed beer. The folks from the Trapp Family Lodge assured me that they would keep me posted on its development. Think of it: gluten free Vermont pizza and gluten free Vermont micro-brewed beer. I assured them that Against the Grain would be willing to do some joint marketing events in the celiac community.

Surprises of the Garden: GF Sherried Carrot and Kale Lasagna With Rosemary Garlic Bread

Dinner last night used four items from the garden: carrots, kale, garlic, and rosemary. We were making rosemary rolls at work yesterday, which got me thinking about how good rosemary tastes with carrots, and before I knew it, I had planned a dinner based upon the two. It didn’t hurt matters that the carrots in the garden were maturing, and it was time to pick. Actually, this is the first time in over 15 years gardening in Vermont that we have grown decent carrots.

 Of course there are the funky carrots that mange to grow around rocks in the soil (lots of rocks,) but we’ve never grown decent sized carrots before the first frost until this summer. Maybe it was the hotter than normal weather or the quality of the seeds (High Mowing Seeds from, you guessed it, Vermont,) but boy are we getting the loveliest, tastiest carrots. (Chester, our Golden, also loves carrots. He lurks in the drop zone, and is happy to snack on the peels, so no need for a compost bin with him.)

To build the lasagna, I used a sherried carrot sauce instead of tomato sauce, and added chopped kale to a blend of ricotta, egg, and parmesan cheese. When I went to prepare the sauce, I got a big surprise. Perfectly camouflaged on the carrot greens was a beautiful green and black striped caterpillar on the move.

The vertical striping, much like that of a zebra, has the effect of visually breaking up the image for any predators (or cooks.) Of course, Alex was delighted by the caterpillar surprise, so we immediately had to go online and find out what kind of butterfly it would become. It turned out to be a black swallowtail butterfly—how cool!

Gluten Free Sherried Carrot and Kale Lasagna
The sauce:
3 large carrots, peeled and chopped
1 medium onion, chopped
1/3 stick butter
½ C cooking sherry
1-1/2 C water
1 tsp freshly ground pepper

The ricotta filling (blended:)
1 15-oz container of ricotta
1 cup shredded Parmesan
1 large egg
2 C chopped raw kale

Additional lasagna ingredients:
1 12-oz package Tinkyada lasagna noodles
2 C shredded mozzarella cheese
½ C kalamata olives (chopped)
1 tsp freshly chopped rosemary

1. Saute onion in melted butter until transparent.
2. Add chopped carrots, sherry, pepper, and half the water. Bring to a boil and let simmer adding the balance of the water and the sauce reduces. Simmer until carrots are tender (about 20-25 min.)
3. Remove mixture from the heat and puree in a food processor or blender until smooth. Set aside for building lasagna.
4. Spread approximately ¼ of the sauce in the bottom of a 9x12 baking dish, then place a layer of uncooked lasagna noodles on top of it.
5. Spread approximately ¼ of ricotta mixture on noodles, and top with ¼ of shredded mozzarella.
6. Repeat process, building layers. End with a layer of shredded mozzarella. Sprnkle kalamata olives and fresh rosemary on top.
7. Cover with foil and bake for 30 minutes at 400 degrees.
8. Uncover and bake 30 additional minutes. Allow to cool 5-10 minutes before slicing.

Gluten Free Garlic Rosemary Bread
1. Slice Against The Grain Rosemary Rolls into cross sections approximately ½ to ¾ inch thick.
2. Finely chop one garlic clove and add to several tablespoons of butter.
3. Brush butter and garlic on tops of slices.
4. Bake on sheet pan for approximately 10 minutes at 400 degrees (until lightly toasted.)

Sunday, August 15, 2010

All Natural Liars

Vermont is home to a lot of great entrepreneurs, particularly food entrepreneurs. Perhaps it is the inspiring natural environment, or the quality of life, or even the disproportionate amount of smart folks with Yankee (often acquired) ingenuity, but some really great and original products have come out of this tiny state.

No food company has been more visibly the “face” of Vermont than Ben&Jerry’s. Ben&Jerry’s story is now legendary—childhood friends move to Vermont, build a premium brand ice cream empire on original flavors, funky names, and a commitment to social conscience. And then the rest of the story unfolds. The company is bought by Unilever (which also owns brands like Dove, Lipton, Axe deodorant, and Hellman’s) in 2000. The sellout path is not an unusual one for a number of other original Vermont food companies like Green Mountain Gringo, Putney Pasta, Annie’s Naturals, and most recently Magic Hat Brewing Company. Most conglomerates (usually public,), and venture capital- backed companies are motivated by money and increasing shareholder value. Making the world better for customers and/or celiac sufferers is typically way down on their list of priorities.

When we started out in business, we modeled a lot of our core values on Ben&Jerry’s sense of social and product mission. From their website:

Product Mission: To make, distribute, and sell the finest quality all natural ice cream and euphoric concoctions with a continued commitment to incorporating wholesome, natural ingredients and promoting business practices that respect the Earth and the Environment.

So, it was quite a shock to read the most recent report from the Center for Science in the Public interest ( publicly calling on Ben&Jerry’s to drop their prominent “All Natural” claim from their label. It turns out that 48 of their 53 flavors contain substances not found in nature at all. While acknowledging that the ingredients they used were certainly safe, the CSIP stated that “these ingredients come from the factory, not a farm.” Good line, I’d say. In particular, the CSIP took issue with Dutch processed cocoa (processed being the operative word here), partially hydrogenated soybean oil, and corn syrup being listed as natural ingredients. On top of all that, the CSIP first alerted the company and the FDA in 2002 to “the deceptive use of the ‘all natural” claim.”

Which begs the question: Who is monitoring food labeling, anyway? I don’t know about you, but I’ve seen some questionable labels. For example, I once saw a company advertise that its crusts were lightly dusted with cornmeal, yet corn was no where to be found in the ingredients (I’m sensitive to corn, and always look for it on labels.) The proliferation of engineered GF flours, enzymes, and miracle formulations that are hidden behind a “clean label” are troubling as well. What constitutes “clean” and how is “natural” defined? Can we trust companies to label products honestly? I’m not so sure.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Gluten Free Baked Goods: Want a Cleaner Label?

So, I was leafing through a baking journal and came upon an ad for “Squeaky Clean Labels” by a company named Watson Inc:

Let us help you to change existing ingredient labels and remove chemical dough conditioners, such as Sodium Stearoyl Lactylate, Mono and Diglycerides, Azodicarbonamide or DATEM with Softn’Mighty (proprietary enzyme technology.) Watson can also replace Calcium Proprionate with our No Mold (cultured wheat) and Potassium Bromate with our Natural Oven Spring 910 (proprietary enzyme technology.) Most importantly, it can be done without compromising product quality!

The global market for industrial enzymes is estimated to be $2.9 billion, larger than the entire gluten free market. Oddly enough, no one seems to be questioning their use in either traditional or gluten free baking…not in this country anyway. In the UK, however, an organization called the Real Bread Campaign ( calls enzymes “baking’s dirty secret” and asserts that the industry is reluctant to tell consumers that they use them.

The latest buzz word in baking ingredients, and surely a sign of industrialized food manufacturing, is “enzymes.” Enzymes are potent biomolecules derived from protein that act as catalysts for the chemical reactions involved in the baking process. The right combination of enzymes produces springiness in both wheat-based and gluten free breads. Enzymes also keep baked bread from going stale, eliminating the problem of starch in the dough crystallizing and becoming dry, certainly an asset for gluten free breads. From the bread manufacturer’s perspective, though, the greatest benefit is that they leave a squeaky-clean label.

Don’t think that the “clean” label you’re reading means that the baked goods were made with the same natural ingredients in your grandmother’s kitchen. You won’t find "enzymes" on the spice shelf, slotted nicely between dill and fennel. These are big business ingredients. Genetic engineering is used in the development and manufacture of most commercially available enzymes used by the food and beverage industry. The reason for genetic engineering is mostly economic--without genetic engineering, naturally occurring enzymes in microorganisms cannot be fermented in a cost effective manner.

Both traditional and gluten free baked goods consumers are insisting on clean labels and are becoming increasingly weary of chemical additives and dough conditioners. This demand is driving ingredient makers to engineer products that increase the springiness, improve the texture, and extend the shelf-life of baked goods. Gluten free consumers can certainly benefit from these improvements, but at what cost? Innovation doesn’t have to mean the industrialization of food, serious food processing, and ingredient engineering. At Against The Grain, we have one of the cleanest labels in the gluten free baked goods category, and we do it it old-fashinoed way.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Gluten Free in College

There are pregnancy books and parenting books and books on how to pick the right college, but no books that really prepare you for the moment when you pack your teenage child in a car and leave him or her off at college. Last fall, our son headed off to college, and I must admit that it was one of the most emotionally charged moments I have experienced as a parent…and I wasn’t even the one who dropped him off! Add celiac disease to the fledging drama, and it produces a whole new layer of anxiety.

Actually preparing for my celiac son in college began over a year before. We visited a half-dozen or so colleges in his decision process, and he got used to me asking about special dietary needs. Luckily, he didn’t have to make his decision based upon his dietary needs. He found a school that felt just right, applied for early decision, and was done with the college application process by December 15. When we visited the school for admitted students’ day, we asked for gluten free lunches, which to their credit they were able to provide. Then we toured the main dining hall with a staff member and noted that there was no dedicated toaster, no stash of gluten free breads on the line, and no separate condiments. Clearly, I had my work cut out for me—I needed to impart in my son the importance of advocating for himself, and I had to take the initiative in opening the dialogue for him.

About a month before he was to begin his first semester, I e-mailed the dietician listed on his school’s dining hall website and addressed my concerns after visiting the dining hall. She responded to my concerns, and informed me that her organization, Bon Appetite Management Company, was in the process of beginning a celiac training initiative company-wide. The dietician also put us in touch with the college’s executive chef. By the time my son arrived on campus, a lot had changed, including the debut of a dedicated GF toaster. At orientation, my son and I met with the executive chef and discussed how to manage my son’s dietary requirements. This had the effect of opening up a student/chef dialogue. The chef asked my son to set up a time for coffee, and they walked through and discussed all campus dining halls. The executive chef was very student-friendly and offered to have his staff make anything my son wanted and to prepare gluten free versions of meals ahead of the other meals they were making. I am happy to report that my son was not once glutened in the campus dining halls.

Despite a tremendous working relationship with the chef, gluten free dining in college for my son was not without its challenges. Getting him to advocate for himself took time. For example, my son sometimes found himself in the position of holding up the service line of hungry students and stressed out servers, so he just ate yogurt and salad instead. And meals are social times at college; the offer for made-to-order gluten free meals was great in principle, but when my son was dining with friends, they were often finished eating by the time he got his meal.

I had another conversation with the dietician after school was over for the summer, and we reviewed my son’s dining hall experience. I shared a number of my son’s observations, like “Why does barley have to be sitting in the middle of the salad bar where students can accidentally drop it into other offerings?” By the time he starts school again in several weeks, the salad bar will be organized to minimize contamination, and the staff will make an attempt to bake some extra gluten free meals, “fast food,” that can be micro-waved or minimally heated in a pinch. We couldn’t have asked for a much better gluten free college dining service.

The dining halls of the following schools are managed by Bon Appetite:
American University
Biola University
Case Western Reserve University
Dominican University of California
Emmanuel College
Goucher College
Hamilton College
Lesley University
Lewis & Clark College
Macalester College
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Mount St. Mary's College
Northwestern College
Oberlin College
Reed College
Seattle University
St. Olaf College
University of Pennsylvania
University of Redlands
University of San Francisco
Washington University in St. Louis
Whitman College
Woodbury University