Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Is There a Celiac in the House?

A number of years ago, we moved to New York City from Central Pennsylvania, and I needed to find a new family doctor. Not being very attuned to city life, it wasn’t the easiest of things to do. Although there are a gazillion physicians in New York City, finding a good one to whom I could relate was a challenge. I made an appointment with a family medicine specialist near our apartment, and showed up on time. The waiting room was empty, which should have been a clue, but that was before I learned life lessons like you never eat at a restaurant with an empty dining room or ride in an empty car on the NY Subway. I waited, and waited. About 35 minutes went by. No one came in, no one left, just the receptionist behind her glass window (bullet proof?) and me. Suddenly the front door opened and an office assistant walked in carrying the morning mail.

“Just give me the financial magazines, and throw the rest away,” the receptionist said. “The doctor doesn’t care about anything but the financial ones.” Whoa.

I promptly got up and walked out, thus continuing my search for a family physician. I didn’t think I was asking a lot to want a physician who was motivated by practicing medicine more than money.

I guess I feel the same way about gluten free good manufacturers. I prefer to patronize a company run by someone who is gluten free or otherwise dietary-challenged, who is passionate about making a difference. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not against companies motivated by a business opportunity who leverage their gluten-based brand names to promote their gluten free brands. But, there is a special connection in celiac-run companies between the company and the customer that promotes a feeling of commitment and trustworthiness.

As more mainstream companies produce gluten free alternatives, I fear that we are losing that connection. What’s worse is that some of the gluten free pioneers are falling by the wayside. In the words of Tiffany Janes at The Essential Gluten Free Blog, “Like it or not, large companies that can make a ton of food for less money than the ‘little guys’ will hurt many companies. The ingredients that larger companies use might not be as healthy, but many people are more concerned with paying less than buying healthier products.”

That was also precisely the topic of the editorial in the latest issue of Gluten Free Living, which lamented the closure of Mr. Ritts. Today, June 30, is the last day of baking for Paul Kelty, a gluten free pioneer and founder of Mr Ritts, a Philadelphia area gluten free bakery (although he will continue to market baking mixes.) Mr. Ritts is not only an exceptional gluten free baker, but also a warm, generous person who provided invaluable advice when we began our operation more than three years ago. Mr.Ritts, we wish you the best of luck in the newest iteration of your business.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

A Berry Delicious Gluten Free Day

Yesterday Alex and I celebrated the summer solstice (a little early—we took advantage of the perfect weather) by hiking up to the top of Mt.Wantastiquet. It’s a great mountain just across the Connecticut River from Brattleboro, VT with a carriage trail built in 1891 that switches back and forth to the summit.
It was hot, and we didn’t bring water, so we were thrilled to discover that we were the first to find ripe wild blueberries growing around the boulders on the summit. They were warm and sweet and tasted just like summer.

I always get a thrill when I come upon naturally growing berries. It’s like eating local at its ultimate best. Our scene was right out of Robert McCloskey’s Blueberries for Sal, except that our blueberry picking solitude was interrupted not by a bear, but by a Jack Russell terrier and a guy sitting on the summit monument talking for at least fifteen minutes on his cell phone. Welcome to the “connected” world of 2010.
As if that weren’t enough, on our way down, we came upon a young family of four heading up. Alex stopped dead in his tracks, and in his unvarnished directness, accosted them with “Your dog is wearing shoes!” No kidding, their boxer (I think they called her Lily) was wearing what looked like red Mary Janes called Bark’n Boots ($59.95 at Eastern Mountain Sports if you care.) Admittedly, our Golden, Chester, has some sensory issues, but all I could imagine was him rolling in contortions trying to simultaneously chew and scrape those shoes off. Besides which, how can a dog respectably give a squirrel a run wearing shoes with Vibram soles?

A shoe-clad dog is definitely an oddity in Vermont, and between the “bear” and the dog with shoes, we laughed all they way down. Along the railroad tracks in Brattleboro on the banks of the Connecticut River, we found MORE wild berries. This time, they were black raspberries. We picked a nice cup of them and brought them home to make GF raspberry muffins for Father’s Day. So here is my version of wild raspberry gluten free/casein free muffins…enjoy!

Wild Raspberry Gluten Free/Casein Free Muffins
 (makes 20)

2 ½ C GF Mix (1/3 rice flour, 1/3 cornstarch, 1/3 tapioca)
¾ C sugar
¾ C powdered sugar
4 large eggs
½ C non-GMO canola oil
1 C fresh raspberries
¾ C chopped pumpkin seeds (or seeds/nuts of your choice)
2/3C orange juice
1 tsp vanilla
1 tsp baking soda

Combine all dry ingredients; then add wet ingredients and beat on high for 2 minutes. Fold in raspberries and chopped pumpkins. Ladle into greased cupcake pans ( ¾ full.) Bake at 350 for approx 20 minutes.
Note:  this recipe does not use xanthan gum.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

A Wake-Up Call for Gluten Free Ingredients

This past week, those of us who bake and eat gluten free received a wake-up call when it comes to ingredients. Actually, by the time the week was over, we had received THREE wake-up calls: three separate news stories related cautionary tales for those of us who bake and eat gluten free. The first was a report that a virus called “brown streak” is decimating tapioca crops in Africa, and some are likening its potential to the great potato famine in Ireland in the 1840s. Most people don’t realize that after rice and wheat, tapioca (also known as cassava, manioc, and yuca) is the largest source of calories in the food supply.

Eight hundred million people in Africa, South America, and Asia rely on it as a food staple. It is also a staple of gluten free flour blends, and the exclusive gluten free flour used by us at Against The Grain. Our tapioca comes from Thailand, where experts think it is highly unlikely the brown steak will spread. However, the virus in Africa has greatly reduced the world supply of tapioca, which is not only used in food and cosmetics, but also in the textile and paper industries. Our tapioca costs have shot up 30% over the past few months. The increased cost of tapioca will also put pressure on other gluten free baked good manufacturers, as well as those selling mixes—not what the consumer wants to hear.

The second wake-up call was the publication of a pilot study by dietician Tricia Thompson, sponsored by Schar, USA and Bia Diagnostics, and published in the June issue of the American Dietetic Association. It looked at the potential for contaminated grains that are normally used in gluten free baking. The results indicated that 32% (or 7 of 22 samples) contained mean gluten levels of greater than 20ppm. The products tested included white rice and flour, brown rice, corn meal, polenta, buckwheat and buckwheat flour, amaranth seed and flour, flax seed, millet grain and flour, sorghum flour, and soy flour.

The authors stress that the sample sizes were not large enough to make any definitive statements about which grains or seeds were more likely to be contaminated, but there were some pretty scary numbers for soy flour. Coincidentally, in our household, we have had some on-and-off reactions to products containing soy. Now, we’re not sure whether it is the soy or contamination or both.

As a gluten free manufacturer, we’re glad we only use tapioca in our products, a starch that is processed totally outside the traditional grain and mill system. But, like everyone else, we are also gluten free consumers, and we buy products containing many other gluten free starches and grains.

The last news story concerned a report (and video footage by CBS) of a makeshift, garage-based milling facility in Iowa that processes gluten free grains. Although the owners maintain that only 1% of their products were processed in that facility, would you want to eat that 1% produced in a facility that had no running water, no hand-wash stations, and no working toilet? Even at a recent outdoor vendor fair in Minneapolis last month, the Minnesota Department of Health required that there be portable hand-wash stations for vendors. I don’t know about the health department in Iowa, but here in Vermont, if we had no running water, we would be shut down in what my mother-in-law used to call “A New York Minute”—that’s faster than fast!

Clearly, gluten free products are coming of age. As more and more industrialized giants enter the fray, I’m afraid we’re only going to hear more reports like these, which aren’t all that unusual in the industrial food chain. As if it isn’t enough that we have to read each and every label thoroughly, we now have to worry about whether the label is accurate as well as the source of the ingredients.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Journey into the World of Gluten-Eaters, Episode Two: Strolling of the Heifers

The celebrity judge from Against The Grain rates a loaf
In a previous post, I commented that it is a good thing to sample our gluten free bread products to gluten-eaters from time to time. Friday night, we were one of the corporate sponsors of the most gluten-eater event of all: a bread baking contest. King Arthur, another fine Vermont company, was one of the sponsors as well. Even though they now have a line of gluten free mixes, this was a major gluten event. Why, you might ask, would a gluten free bread company sponsor an event like this? It was a benefit for Strolling of the Heifers, a local event that raises money and awareness for Vermont farming, educates youth, and works to preserve the livelihoods of farming families. And, we’re very much about supporting local producers. The bread baking contest was only one event of the weekend, which includes, a parade with 100 flowered heifers marching up Main Street, along with every imaginable parade entry. The event is so popular that over the weekend, the population of Brattleboro swells three to four times. Fun is had by all.

Entries await judging
As a sponsor of the event, we were asked if we wanted to be a judge of the bread-baking contest. One of our bakers whose wife is gluten free, but he isn’t, agreed. He also had been a artisan bread baker in Massachusetts before joining Against The Grain, so he was a perfect candidate. When Dan found out that he was billed as a “celebrity” judge, that added even more seriousness to his purpose. He joked that he would find himself saying, “Well, I’m going to ‘go against the grain’ on this one.” But, he reported that all three judges totally agreed on the top entry, as well as second and third place. Lest we think that only gluten free eaters complain about bread, he reported that they had to sample a number of loaves that were awful. And, no, there were not any gluten free entries.

Ruth greets tasters, 1000+ of them
A number of local vendors had tables at the bread baking contest event, including Grafton Cheese, Cabot Cheese, King Arthur, and us. King Arthur even offered samples of gluten free brownies made from their new gluten free brownie mix. Alas, I didn’t get to taste them since we were trapped behind our table and a swell of 1,000+ tasters. It was pretty amazing to me how many townspeople had never heard of us and were thrilled to try our bread, gluten free or not. We also met gluten free people from distant places like Florida, Ohio, Michigan, and across the border in Massachusetts and New Hampshire, who discovered our product that night and vowed to become customers. One of my favorite visitors was a man who stopped by, tasted a piece of sesame bagel, stopped in his tracks, tasted another, then another, and loudly proclaimed, “I don’t care if this bagel is gluten free or not; it is the BEST bagel I’ve ever eaten in my life!” Like I said before, it can be very affirming to journey into the world of gluten eaters—our products are all about great tasting products…products that just happen to be naturally gluten free.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Gluten Free Pay to Play

This morning I opened up an email from a national celiac website. It was their monthly newsletter, and it contained the usual mix of articles about food, events, health topics, and other items of interest to a celiac audience. As I scanned the list of articles, my eye was drawn to a prominent review of a new product—a hot dog bun. This is a product we have considered developing ourselves from time to time, so I started reading it with interest. By the time I got to the third sentence, I could see this was going to be a five-star review. They always are, so I hit the “delete” button for the entire email. I wondered if this was another “pay to play,” or in other words, a paid review. It may well have been.

In case you hadn’t noticed, most of the high-traffic informational celiac Web sites and some blogs are now posting banner ads. Celiac events such as vendor fairs, fund-raising walks, and membership meetings have loads of “sponsors” and “supported by” tags. The blogging world is rife with bloggers who eagerly solicit freebies from manufacturers and then tirelessly promote the products online. Gluten-free and celiac Internet forums are full of people who write post after post praising this or that product. Is it because they feel so strongly about the product or because a manufacturer has sent them freebies, coupons, and prizes to reward them for all the buzz they create on the site about the products? A new entrant into the gluten free manufacturing business recently took to the social media network to “advertize” for a product evangelist. This all hits me as kind of weird.

As a gluten-free manufacturer, I receive nearly daily solicitations from all of these sources. One well-known celiac information site has been sending me monthly solicitations with all kinds of juicy offers. In addition to the usual banner ads, I can BUY a product review for $250-$550, depending on how long I would like it to be. No kidding, a product review. Is their “reviewer” going to give my product a bum review? What do you think? Are there any unflattering reviews on their site? I’m sure you know the answer to that.

I don’t mean to sound cynical here, but there was a time when celiac groups and Web sites were a lot more altruistic, objective, and non-commercial. I think we all need to recognize that that time has passed. In some ways, we have become a victim of our own success in creating public awareness of the needs of the celiac and gluten-free community.

But we live in a market-driven society, and big money and marketing directors are moving into this business. The big industrial food companies are buying their way into the public awareness with all the marketing muscle we expect in an advertising-oriented society. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as long as we are aware of its presence. We all know an infomercial when we see one, but this is something new in the gluten free world. I can’t tell you the number of calls we’ve received from “producers” claiming they are doing a TV segment on celiac disease, and want to tell our story…for money, of course, lots of money. And, when you read a “product review” these days, you have to ask yourself whether it is an infomercial. Was the reviewer a recipient of lots of freebies? Are all the contests and give-aways that require postings and reviews anything more than a manipulation of customers for a manufacturer’s gain?

Big celiac groups are being courted and funded by manufacturers that want them to give their products top billing. Did you realize that manufacturers pay big money (sometimes thousands of dollars) to provide some part of the sumptuous meals that are included with your registration fee at major celiac events and conferences? Who can blame the celiac organization, for these events are often fundraisers for celiac research or education and the more sponsorship opportunities, the more money is raised. But you are not getting an unbiased taste of a new product—you are getting a taste of the product whose manufacturer has paid the most. Pay to play. Let the reader/forum follower/blog follower/buyer beware.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Gluten Free and The Big Three

A couple of days ago, there was a letter to the editor in our local newspaper from a visitor from Michigan. He remarked that he saw many bumper stickers advising him to “buy local,” and he wanted to understand “just how locally and to what products the fine people of the Northeast extend this philosophy to their purchasing practices.” In particular, he was referring to the preponderance of non-American cars, and he urged Vermonters to take a look at American cars and commented that the big three have made great strides in the last few years.

It was a thought-provoking letter. Six years ago, we turned in a gas-guzzling American SUV with 75,000 miles for a Prius. With 160,000+ miles on the odometer and still going strong, we have no intention of buying a new car any time soon. When we bought our Prius, not only were there few fuel-efficient American vehicles, but the existing SUV’s didn’t hold up well as all-season vehicles on the back roads of Vermont.

If you’ve read this far, you’re probably wondering what domestic versus foreign automobiles has to do with gluten free bread. Well, just by chance, I happened to be driving from Vermont to Michigan about six weeks ago for a gluten free vendor fair. I took a route through Canada and crossed into Michigan at the Port Huron border crossing. It was approximating rush hour, and I was stunned that there were no foreign cars on the road. Actually, I made a game of it and counted only seven foreign cars in my one and one-half hour trip from the border to Ann Arbor. It was as if I were in a foreign country (or Vermont is a foreign country!)—I saw models of American cars I’ve never seen before, and the highways were miracles of efficiency.

When I visited a few local health food stores, though, the frozen cases were stuffed with imported bread products and pizzas. While the buy local/buy American sentiment in the Detroit area was obvious for automobiles, local and American gluten free bread products weren’t to be found. A few years back, imported gluten free brands were some of the most palatable (and often the most economical) on the market, but just like in Detroit, a lot has changed in the past few years. There are a number of domestic gluten free bread products that are tastier and a lot more wholesome. So, it occurs to me that the Big Three and domestic gluten free bread manufacturers have a lot more in common than they might think. As a manufacturer, we are in a position of having to dislodge imported brands from the freezer shelves. We do this by letting as many people as possible taste our breads—21,000 celiacs last year alone. Once customers see and taste the difference, they can make a difference by buying a non-industrialized food product made by an American company who cares about not only its customers, but its employees, and the family farms and small businesses that supply its raw materials. And by the time our Prius finally gives up the ghost, I'm hopeful that the Big Three will have demonstrated to me the superiority of their automobiles.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Let Them Eat Cake (Gluten Free, Of Course)

This morning, I woke up after being away for the Memorial Day holiday and panicked. I realized that it was June 1, and it was the first anniversary of Dan’s hire. We have a small, close-knit group of people working at Against The Grain. I’m not quite sure how it happens, but it doesn’t take long for traditions to become established. And one tradition we observe is employee anniversaries. I make a gluten-free, casein-free cake for every employee’s anniversary, and we all sit around for a few moments and celebrate. And, of course, I never use a mix because I never bake with xanthan or guar gum (I can always taste the gumminess and aftertaste so avoidance has become my obsession. As an aside, other people have written us and said the same thing, so I know I’m not all alone in my gum obsession.) However, there are a number of good gluten free cake mixes out there on the market if you’re not an xanthan or guar gum phobe.

Luckily, I had all the necessary ingredients on hand, so I leaped out of bed and went to work. As I write this blog, I am pacing the floor waiting for the cake to cool in the unusually warm Vermont weather for June. Long ago, I learned the perils of trying to ice a not totally cool cake in hot weather. It just oozes and oozes and makes a total mess! Besides that, as the recipe-developer and inventor of our bread baking process, I feel a certain degree of pressure to make the cake look (and of course taste) respectable. I must admit, I am by far not a graduate of Wilton Decorating classes. The last time I decorated a cake for Sean’s 2nd anniversary, I wrote “Sean reaches the terrible two’s” on the top in icing script. “Huh?” One of my colleagues said, starting to read the message, “Scan nachos? Huh??” We got a good laugh out of it, but I’m still defensive of my primitive decorating skills.

Insisting on baking cakes from scratch certainly has its liabilities, but baking from scratch with simple, fresh ingredients it is the philosophy on which our company was founded. I’m proud to say that I have made every one of my kids’ birthday cakes from scratch, and my oldest one will turn 21 this summer! Only once have I had to resort to a non home-made option. That was last year on my mom’s 88th birthday. She had requested a turkey for her birthday (which I had stuffed with this, moist, delicious stuffing made from our Rosemary Baguettes.) It was only after the turkey was in the oven that I realized that I hadn’t yet baked the cake. In a pinch, I bought some gluten free brownies and some chocolate mint ice cream. Then, using the softened ice cream, I built a cake using the brownies like bricks and the ice cream like mortar. Then I “iced” the entire cake with softened ice cream. After an hour or so in the freezer, I had a passable gluten free birthday cake. Of course, it wasn’t guiltless since I hadn’t baked it from scratch…

So far, our company is small enough that a nine-inch layer cake gives everyone a taste. I’m not sure what will happen some day when anniversaries occur weekly, and it takes far more than a nine-inch cake to celebrate. I’ll figure it out, though, because traditions are part of what makes a company’s culture. Time to ice the cake!