Thursday, April 29, 2010

Vermont Rules for Foodies

Vermont is home to a lot of artisanal bakers, cheese makers, and food entrepreneurs. In fact, we have an association, The Vermont Specialty Food Association and a Food Venture Center ( to assist food entrepreneurs in the start up stage. As small specialty food producers, we find safety in numbers. We share knowledge among us, and when a new food entrepreneur emerges, we go out of our way to help him or her figure out everything from how to source ingredients, to working with brokers, to how distributors work (the answer is “dysfunctionally,” lol.) Several Vermont companies provided invaluable informational support in our startup a little over three years ago, and we always find it heartening to pay back that advice. And, every time we get together, whether it is over association socials, or sharing exhibit space at shows like Natural Products Expo East and the New York Fancy Food Show, I always learn something new from other Vermont vendors.

Our state is also very supportive of food entrepreneurs. After all, specialty food is the fastest growing segment of the retail industry, and all of our little businesses add up when it comes to employment. Recently, for example, the state and the local development authority managed to attract a new organic yogurt company to locate in Brattleboro, VT. They will use the milk of 3,000 cows daily and provide 24 jobs over the next three years.

And every year, Senator Patrick Leahy holds a showcase event called “Taste of Vermont” in the US Senate Office Building, to which all Vermont food vendors are invited to participate. He hires a wonderful Vermont catering firm to prepare dishes from our foods, and invites about 500 Washington, DC law makers, restaurant buyers, food professionals, and press members to attend. This year, they will again serve our cheese pizza and pesto pizza (last year we were next to Magic Hat Brewery—what a combination!), as well as our baguettes made into bruschetta with fresh Mountain Mozzarella from Maplebrook Farm ( in Bennington, VT.

Vermont is a great place to work and run a food-related business. We attract the neatest, most caring, and most creative workforce. We can grow kitchen herbs outside our factory door, picnic in organic grass for lunch, and go for a run or bike ride at the end of the day, practically outside our front door. Our dog can even come to work with us (except that he’s restricted to managing the office, not the production floor.) Vermont Rules for foodies!

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

This is Phood

The other day I was minding my own business (read: working the phones, calling stores about getting them to carry our products), when a salesman for an ingredient company showed up and wanted to talk to me about buying from his company. Among other things, we buy a lot of tapioca, literally a truckload of it at a time. We also buy large quantities of expeller-pressed, non-GMO canola oil and all natural mozzarella cheese. Word gets around. Sales people are often soliciting our business.

This guy starts his pitch and of course wants to know from whom we currently buy our ingredients and how much we pay. All good and fine. He then whips out his glossy sales literature to show me the kinds of stuff he can sell me. I start looking through the five-page catalog while he peppers me with questions. Do we use any dough conditioners? Or binding agents? Stabilizers? Nope, nope, and nope. The more I read, the more amazed I become. Just the categories of substances were unbelievable: acidulants, excipients, humectants, phosphates, to list a few. Yummy things like benzoic acid, propylene glycol, and calcium sulfate. We see these ingredients in processed foods all the time, and every now and then I have wondered where do you get stuff like this? Now I know.

I began to really joke around with the guy. “Man,” I say, this is like I am reading something from Dow Chemical. You really expect me to put this stuff in our bread?” In fact, his company is mostly a chemical company, except that this is stuff you can legally put in food. “Look at this, what’s a ‘humectant?’” One of our staff folks, Ruth, is sitting at a desk across the room, overhears this and pipes up,”Oh, I know what that is, it’s in my hair conditioner!” Oh boy.

I couldn’t help imagining how this stuff must be packaged. In big metal drums, like chlorine for swimming pools? Or in heavy-duty plastic bags like you find lawn fertilizer and weed killer? Or perhaps thick plastic bottles for detergents and the stuff that unclogs your drains or cleans your toilets? I won’t be finding out. We don’t touch this stuff. And I have to keep reminding myself: This is food, this is food, this is food. No, wait! No, it’s not. It’s Phood! PHOOD!!!

Say “no” to industrialized phood.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

The Way We Eat is Political

I’ve recently been reading about Alice Waters and other culinary-minded radicals of the 1970s. What were they doing that was so radical? They were cooking with quality, fresh ingredients and shunning supermarket uniformity and mass-produced, overly-processed, flavor-enhanced foods of the post-World War II era.

I see some interesting parallels in the gluten free world today. When my family members were first diagnosed with celiac disease almost ten years ago, we were pretty much on our own. Although there was a smattering of commercial gluten free baked goods, they were rarely found in traditional supermarkets--basically we baked everything from scratch. Even though that took a lot of time and effort, we developed some pretty tasty gluten free alternatives. Then we took the step that a number of other celiac families have, we became gluten free food entrepreneurs. Making delicious gluten free baked goods in our home was one thing. Retaining that home-baked look and taste while making them available to customers across the country was, and remains, a daunting challenge. There is no getting around it, working with fresh ingredients is a fickle process.

Specialty food is the fastest growing segment of the retail industry and within specialty food, gluten free items are the fastest growing. Even at the 2010 International Pizza Expo in Las Vegas last month, gluten free pizza was one of the hottest topics of discussion. More and more companies seem to be jumping on the bandwagon every day… and gluten free food is becoming far more convenient. But are we sacrificing quality and fresh ingredients in the process? Chemical dough conditioners and preservatives are even creeping into the gluten free labels of companies that were previously known for their all natural, gluten-based ingredients. Another company has even boasted that their gluten free products “represent the very best available science.” Yikes.

In the 1960’s, one voice speaking out against artificial ingredients and big food companies was Helen Evans Brown. The author of Breakfasts and Brunches for Every Occasion, she railed against toast “made from bread that looks and tastes like facial tissue.” Why do we have to fill gluten free food with the substances Twinkies are made of? Some things never seem to change.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

On the Road to the Gluten Free Fair

I guess I have Gluten Free Vendor Fairs on my mind. That is probably because we will be traveling to Gluten Free Fairs almost every weekend from now until the summer. We are a small, family-run business, and we have a close-knit team of bakers, so it is a big deal for one of us to be on the road. It is also a pretty big deal to get to shows with all the frozen samples and gear needed to display our products.

We often drive when the event is not more than a long days worth of driving. In the process, our SUV is transformed into an ice cream truck/kitchen/furniture/accessory vehicle. It was Paul of Mr. Ritts GF Bakery in the Philadelphia area who first let us in on the secret of taking frozen products on the road: take the back seat out of your SUV, have an inverter installed, and plug in a chest freezer. Voila, you have an ice cream truck. Of course, that works great when you are moving, but it does get a little challenging when you have to stop for the night. So, we travel with a 50 foot extension cord and find a motel where we can back the car close enough to plug in.
The inverter is a great invention, but I must admit that our Golden, Chester, is not a big fan.  When we first had it installed, Chester, like any Golden pup, decided to lick it.  Mistake.  Boy was he startled.  I guess he knows what those invisible dog fences feel like now.

Into the car, we pack a microwave oven, a convection oven for preparing our truly yummy pizzas, all the cutting boards and utensils for slicing and preparing bread, and plates, linens, some lovely-looking flowers (the nice touch,) and our corporate banner. Well, we’re not a CORPORATION—far from it—but what else do you call those roll-up things with your logo on them? We also put in a small cooler with gluten free snacks and caffeine, a GPS, some CD’s, and if we’re really organized and have the time, some books on CD from the library. By the time we’re done, we can barely see out the back, and by the time we get to the show venue, we’re experts on NPRs major topics of the day.

And so we do it over and over, a lot of the time by plane, once in a while by train, and often by driving lots of miles. If you stop by our table, you’re meeting the real people behind our breads, not some professional demo coordinator. To us, the meeting between manufacturer and customer is part of what makes our company special. Last year, we presented our products to over 21,000 celiacs. Yes, that’s a lot of people…and a lot of miles. See you in at the TCCSG Fair in Farmington Hills on Saturday!

Monday, April 19, 2010

Who Goes to Gluten Free Vendor Fairs?

(yep, that's snow)

It is Gluten Free Fair/Celiac Walk season, and no matter where you live, there are many big, successful events to attend. In some part of the country, there is one to attend almost every weekend between now and the end of June. For us as manufacturers, it is always a pleasure to visit with those loyal customers who buy our bread, at the same time meeting new faces and newly-diagnosed celiacs who will become customers.

Yesterday, we divided forces. Tom was at the Gluten Free Cooking Expo in Lisle, IL, and I went to Healthy Villi’s GF Fair in Wellesley Hills, MA. Boy, the Boston Marathoners are in for a real treat today—the spring greenery and flowers were stunning. 

At the risk of sounding like Barack Obama, I’d like to mention two typical celiacs I met. The first was Penny from NH, who has been eating gluten free for 10 years, and buying our bread since we started the business. She said she was just turning 70, but clearly a gluten free diet agrees with her—she looked at least 10 years younger! Before we had finished chatting, I had seen pictures of her adorable kilt-clad grandsons who live in Scotland and had learned that her daughter by chance had to come up with a snack to feed an unexpected visitor-- Prince Charles (she gave him strawberries and crème fraiche.) Can’t wait to tell this story to my college-aged son. We’ve always stressed the importance of table manners, and he’s always answered, “Yes, I know, in case I ever have dinner with the Queen.” Well, here was someone who had to dig in her pantry to feed a hungry would-be King. You just never know.

And then there was Everett, a totally charming gentleman, who was a fan of our bagels. He was diagnosed almost 21 years ago, when there was very little knowledge and even less gluten free options. Going on 89, he still drives—told me he’s driven over a million miles, 220,000 of them pulling an Airstream camper, and has log books to prove it. He listed off all the family members and former wives he’s outlived, and it was more than the number of daffodils that are blooming so far in my Vermont yard! Everett left me with typed copies of a few of his recipes. One is for a grits-based breakfast mixture, which I’m sure Tom (the hot cereal fanatic in our household) will love.

Going on the road is not easy, but the joys of connecting with the people whose lives our bread has changed, makes it worth it. Next stop, Detroit.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Just What Kind of Person Works in a Wholesale Gluten Free Bakery Anyway?

We're located right near the banks of the Connecticut River in Brattleboro, VT, and Amtrak trundles by twice a day!

Starting our own business from scratch (with zero experience in the food industry) and hiring and developing a staff we can trust has been an amazing experience. Everything we bake is made in small batches with fresh ingredients, and there is a lot of our staff in every bag we sell. (Of course, I’m not referring to their hair or anything like that--joke.) Much thought goes into what we bake, and there is considerable team interaction involved before our products land on the shelves of a retail store or a food service counter. Our products most definitely reflect the personalities behind them.

The only commonality at Against The Grain seems to be that everyone is an intelligent foodie in some way. They are master problem-solvers, and they get giddy when we work on new product development. One could say that everyone’s input is “baked into” the final product. We work really hard, show tremendous respect for what we bake, and even find time to goof around.

Among our staff, we have someone who was an opera composer and is a performing pianist. We have a philosophy major, who is an expert in healing herbs and is currently working on a master’s degree in nutrition. There’s a professional puppeteer, and an ethnomusicologist, who is also a reggae drummer, a glass blower, and has his own radio show. Then there is an environmental ecologist, who is also a fine arts painter. We also have our own mini-version of Donald Trump (well, he’s a lot nicer than “the Donald,”) who has a black belt in Taekwondo and is on his way to becoming a real estate mogul. There’s a comparative religion major, someone with a doctorate in animal behavior, and a single mom who has lived in a kibbutz in Israel and on a Hare Krishna dairy farm. We also employ a young man who attends a local school for autism; he’s a train fanatic and a master storyteller. Chester, the office Golden, scares away salesmen, jumps all over ornery truck drivers, and has been known to chase bankers back to their car.

What do all these people have to do with gluten free bread? They are some of the most creative people you’ll find, and all of us that eat gluten free know that it takes a lot of creativity to make a premium product.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

"Good Food Costs Less" Really?

The other day, as I was walking along the highway near work, an 18-wheeler from a regional grocery store chain whizzed by. Boldly plastered on its side was the slogan, “Good Food Costs Less.” I thought about that a minute. What exactly does that mean? It can’t be a thinly-veiled advertisement for health care, as in, if you eat “good” food, you will be healthier, and your medical costs will be less. But if I interpreted it literally: the better the quality of the food, the cheaper it is, then it made no sense at all. Good food, pure and simple, costs more, and there is a reason for it.

Good food relies on wholesome ingredients, and fresh ingredients are even better. Good food is minimally processed and preservative free. And good food is made by people who care about their jobs. All of those things come at a cost. Flavor chemistry is cheap. Dried, powdered, processed, and modified ingredients are a lot cheaper than their fresh counterparts. Adding preservatives is cheaper in the long run as well, since it increases the shelf life of products. Paying food processing personnel minimum wage is cheap; so is letting them fend for themselves when it comes to health insurance.

Who comes up with those slogans anyway? Then again, who is going to patronize a grocery store with the slogan “Good Food Costs More?” It’s true, but not a Madison Avenue slogan that is going to give you an edge on the competition.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010


The other day, I needed to set up a pizza photo shoot, so I announced that I was going to the store to pick up some fresh items like tomatoes, a basil plant, and some garlic. Dan, our online media guy, suggested that I take some pictures since the produce displays might be good for a rich backdrop.

I thought that was a pretty good idea, so I grabbed my pocket-sized Canon and headed for the grocery store. The door opened into the produce section, and right there in front of me was a huge display of vine-ripened tomatoes. The color, shapes, and texture all were very appealing. So, I whipped out my camera, started to focus, and then realized that there were these annoying stickers on practically every darn tomato. I scanned the pile for a shot where there were the least stickers, and “click” took my first photo. Not thinking, I forgot to turn off the flash, which with the overly-lit store gave my photo a greenish-gray tint not unlike the way a dog is thought to perceive color. I quickly switched to manual mode, and just as I snapped the second picture, a manager appeared next to me. You would have thought that I was trying to smoke in an airplane bathroom from the way he swooped down on me. At first, I thought he was going to try to confiscate my camera. Mind you, this is a store where you never see a manager (even when I rounded a corner one day and slipped in a split open container of yogurt on the floor and went flying.) He very calmly informed me that I was violating store policy, and when I pleaded ignorance, he said that a notice was posted in the lobby. Guess I wasn’t looking for that one. Although he did his best to be polite and avoid a scene, I felt like a criminal and was terribly paranoid that I was being watched as I went through the store picking out the items I needed.

I guess what I found kind of strange about the incident was why a store would have a policy like that. Did they think I was a terrorist casing out a place to plant a bomb? Or perhaps working for a competitor and trying to unlock the secret of how to create a tower of tomatoes? Or was I some kind of investigative journalist looking for evidence of mislabeled country of origin or (horrors) a wilted tomato vine? Just last summer, NOFA (Northeast Organic Farming Association of Vermont) invited customers to photograph produce at Vermont Farmer’s markets and make a video. They even had the videos posted on youtube for the whole world to see. So, on the one hand, we had food producers/sellers who were proud of their produce, and on the other, a grocery store whose policy it was to prevent photographs. What gives there? And why do I still think that manager perks up behind his two-way mirror every time I walk in the door and watches to see that I’m shopping for produce, not images?

And besides all that, I still have the photo, and here it is for the world to see. If I could only get rid of those unsightly stickers!

Friday, April 9, 2010

Gluten Free Bread Art--Signs of Spring

Sometimes our bloopers are like a Rorschach's test, and we all suggest the image that comes to mind.  Sometimes, our bloopers are unmistakably a figure or animal.  Here's a rosemary baguette from yesterday that looked like the caterpillar from Alice in Wonderland.  It is finally Spring here in Vermont, so we gave her some blooper sesame bagel wings today, and she was transformed into a butterfly.

Speaking of Spring, here are some hollow rolls that became bird nests after we stuffed them with end-of-the-day dough balls.  Stay tuned for baby bird gluten free bread art.  Gluten free baking should be fun...and it is!

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Bloopers...What's a Blooper?

Bloopers, or rejects, are an inevitable part of our baking process. We bake with fresh ingredients, and as we have come to realize, cows have good and bad days, so do laying hens. Fresh ingredients are never exactly the same and are an interesting variable in the baking process. And then there is tapioca starch. Made from a tuber, it has different properties depending on the rain cycle of the season in which it is grown. Like many other flours, including gluten free ones, tapioca also behaves differently depending on the weather outside. Our manufacturing facility is in Vermont. Need I say more? But this is what artisan baking, as opposed to industrialized baking, is all about.

We could more precisely control our ingredients by using powdered milk, boxed or powdered eggs, and cheese chock full of natamycin, a questionable anti-fungicide, and milk protein concentrates. We also could employ all sorts of dough conditioners and stablizers to make the dough behave. We don’t. All of these stabilized ingredients would make our products a lot cheaper, to both us and consumers. But, we are committed to baking honest products using the freshest possible ingredients. It is not only about taste, but it is also about doing the “right” thing. We care deeply about the animals and people behind our ingredients.

What does all of this have to do with bloopers? Well, we have a lot of them. Instead of scooping them up and filling landfills with our rejects, we donate them to local food banks and shelters. On a typical week, we donate over 200 pounds of bread, that go to all sorts of people, not just gluten intolerant ones. We’re proud of the nutritional quality of our products and glad to add them to the diets of those less unfortunate.

What constitutes a blooper? It just doesn’t meet our quality standards. Among other things, it can be too artisan (read: ugly) or it can rise too much or too little. We entertain ourselves with all sorts of names for the bloopers like “volcanoes,” “puffers,” “baked potatoes,” and “tennis balls.” And of course, some of the bloopers end up in the home kitchens of our staff, including us. Volcanoes (aka known as rolls) are, in fact, great for stuffing with tons of veggies and humus—ugly, but oh so utilitarian.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Gluten Free Meatball Hoagie

Rosemary baguettes are not only tasty bread, but they make the most flavorful, moist meatballs and stuffing mixtures. One of our favorite simple meals is a rosemary meatball hoagie made with extra sharp Vermont Cabot cheddar cheese.

1 rosemary baguette
1 medium onion
1 egg
1 pound very lean ground beef or bison
1 Tbsp worcestershire sauce.
15 oz organic tomato sauce
2 slices cheddar cheese

1. Defrost baguette on counter for ½ hour or in microwave, following the directions on the package.
2. Cut baguette in two and save half for hoagie.
3. Finely chop ½ baguette and onion.
4. Mix thoroughly with hands all ingredients.
5. Form into balls a little larger than golf balls (makes 12+/-)
6. Brown meatballs in skillet.

7. Add tomato sauce, cover, and allow to simmer for about 15 minutes

8. Meanwhile, cover open-sliced baguette with cheese slice and place in 300 degree oven to melt.

9. Make sure you accidentally drop something for Chester, who is watching intently.

10. Spoon as many meatballs as you can fit on open-faced baguette.