Every week, eager food entrepreneurs traipse through my office with samples of the best-food-product-ever. My departmental buyers hold court at their desks and in our two conference rooms and office kitchen, and my office staff members eat their way through the day, sampling and tasting the next-best-thing to cross the threshold of Hiller’s Markets.
It was an innocuous day in February when Laura Garelik quietly entered my office with an earnest package of gluten-free baked goods. I am never optimistic about these demos; everyone and their brother wants to launch a food company with a heretofore unknown edible that’s going to solve all the problems of the world. We sell thousands upon thousands of food items in our seven stores – who needs another?
Of course that’s a rhetorical question. We all know that success lies in the belief that new is good and around the corner and within our reach. In these difficult economic days, especially, I am of the belief that innovation trumps tried-and-true –I’ve always lived that as a personal truth. Being the best, producing the best, giving others what they didn’t know they needed – that, my friends, is the secret.
Laura Garelik. She filled my rectangular conference table with gluten-free baked goods – slices of banana and carrot cake, thick fudgy brownies, chocolate chip and sugar cookies, flaky-moist biscuits. In her quiet voice, Laura told us how she began baking and remaking recipes in an effort to find something to satisfy the palate of her courageous husband Phil, who has battled gluten-intolerance for at least 17 years, when he was diagnosed with Celiac Disease 17 years ago this fall.
When they married 38 years ago, Phil was already enduring Crohn’s Disease, with repeat surgeries and an inability to gain weight. Doctors urged Phil to consume pasta, ice cream, bread and muffins but the more he took their advice, the sicker he became.
One day, after the urging of a friend and a holistic doctor, Phil eliminated wheat from his diet altogether and the metaphorical sun shone on his face.
Seventeen years ago, a diagnosis of gluten intolerance signaled a culinary death knell. Not even my stores stocked enough items to support a Celiac’s yearnings. Today, since we’re the Midwest leader in gluten-free grocery items, you can find many delectable frozen and packaged products to suit a Celiac. But there’s nothing better than homemade.
Tired of running up and down the grocery aisles, reading package labels and searching for gluten-free goodies that would taste better than cardboard, Laura took to her kitchen to create desserts Phil would love and which wouldn’t make him sick. She started with a family favorite – her grandmother’s banana cake – and modified the recipe until she had created a gluten-free delight without the dreadful taste of nothing.
“I wanted it to be healthy – not just throw in gluten-free ingredients,” says Laura. “I wanted something of substance – organic ingredients, wholesome, not processed or bleached. Instead of just gluten-free, I wanted it to be nutritious and low-fat, too. I always loved baking but never found the time for it until it was a necessity.”
As a handful of us sat around the conference room, sampling Laura’s Delicate Desserts, as she has named them for consumers, I was impressed with the taste, the consistency, the moistness – I couldn’t discern anything different, really, from standard baked treats. And I listened to Laura’s narrative: Food is so important in our society, she said. Everything is based upon eating. We connect over food, we are separated by food, food sustains us and repels us. I never found the time for cooking until it was a necessity.
Food is our lifeblood, people. We cannot go forward another day without it. Doesn’t that make it imperative that each of us find the right combination of ingredients to nourish our bodies and simultaneously satisfy our souls?
I’ve been selling gluten-free grocery items for years, and proudly so. I troll the aisles during our frequent gluten-free fairs and listen to stories from customers who drove long distances to stock up on many items. In this time, when there are so many delicious products available, I still hear tales of denial of life’s basic pleasures and flavors – at least until they found salvation of a sort in my stores.
After I tasted Laura’s cakes, I began to ponder what, exactly, the meaning could be in a food intolerance like the one Phil faces – when the very foods you eat attack your immune system. That musing led me to a favorite famed movie, D.W. Griffith’s silent film, Intolerance: Love’s Struggle Through the Ages.
Lavish sets, exquisite period costumes, more than 3,000 extras went into this film, which chronicled four historical downfalls driven by human intolerances. This well-regarded film was ahead of its time in magnitude, scope and cost and of course, when it was current, it was a total flop. But it brought to light a universal truth: that intolerance at its most basic level tears apart every working thing until we are left desolate and despair, in ruins and amid chaos.
For a body to repel the very building blocks that lead to its endurance – foods from the basic elements of nature, the substance in wheat and rye that makes bread crumbly and which satisfies carb cravings late into the night – it’s almost a cruel joke. To turn the body against itself, as happens with Celiac Disease, to crumble the immune system and render the eater as sick as the sewer, to pass from generation to generation, like the storyline in that old film, well, it has to mean more than a simple illness.
It takes an average of 12 years to figure out that one suffers from Celiac Disease. Nearly 3 million Americans have it but many don’t know. They eat and agonize in pain.
To succeed in beating the beast, you can’t do it alone. “My husband is the epitome of health now,” says Laura. “I wanted to create a delicious product for other people so they wouldn’t feel denied like he did.”
She did more than that. She took the love of a devoted wife and poured it into the bowl with the gluten-free goodness of organic ingredients and created magic. I always loved to cook but didn’t have the time for it until it was a necessity. Driven by the love of another, Laura was transformed from begrudging home cook to gluten-free baker extraordinaire, pleasing not only her husband but an unknown number of consumers. It takes that passion, that love, that sincere form of devotion, to create something worthwhile.
I’ve decided gluten is a metaphor for all forms of intolerance, lurking as it does in salad dressings, yogurt drinks, cold cuts and egg substitutes. It requires exploration and embarking upon a whole new regime, getting to know amaranth, quinoa and tapioca, speaking a new language, befriending others who can ride the waves with you.
If we are to gather over food, build our communities on the basis of collecting around the table and sharing our stories as we eat, then we must make our meals accessible for every single soul. I’ve watched Laura as she demos her cakes and cookies – she listens intently to stories and shares hers. She builds community over food and eliminates the very nature of denial that defines so many. She rends apart the cliquishness that lies in cracks and crevices, eliminates barriers between people.
She’s a great example of the Hiller Way. And of course, you can find Laura’s Delicate Desserts at Hiller’s, $4.99-$5.99 per package.