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30 August 2005

Feeling like Mr. Rogers

Ener-G donut holes, originally uploaded by shaunaforce.

Do you remember watching those Mr. Rogers’ episodes where he led his television audience through a factory that made toys or bass cellos or our favorite foods? I loved those. And last week, when I visited the Ener-G foods warehouse and company store, I felt like I was in the middle of a Mr. Rogers episode. In the best way, of course.

A few weeks ago, Kathy from Ener-G Foods emailed me. She’d been reading this site, and she liked it, but she was disappointed to find that Ener-G Foods wasn’t on my links list. This was, I assured her, a simple oversight on my part. I already loved Ener-G Foods. In fact, when I was handed my celiac diagnosis, their sesame pretzel rings were the first gluten-free food I ate that gave me hope about my new diet.


I bought a package at Fred Meyer, along with a dozen other packages of gluten-free foods in their impressive little section. Afterwards, on the way to the Flying Apron bakery to buy some gluten-free treats, I was stuck for a long time at a stoplight. Impatient and a little hungry, I rustled around in the shopping bag on the seat to my right and grabbed out the small bag and opened it. Tentatively, of course. The first gluten-free replacement foods I tried at first were a little dusty, a little dry, a little disappointing. And I love pretzels. So I popped one in my mouth, determined to set my face with false appreciation and reassure myself, “Oh, this won’t be so bad.” I wish I had a picture of my face in that moment. Pure, joyful surprise. Small and studded with sesame seeds, these pretzels are better than replacements. They’re fabulous. In fact, at this point, after having eaten, oh, say forty bags of them, I can say this safely: these are my favorite pretzels of all time. No exceptions.

And so, I emailed Kathy back, telling her this, and fixing my links list that night. So when Kathy wrote back to me, asking if I wanted to come down to the plant for a tour, I jumped at the chance.

Ener-G food outside

I always imagined that food production warehouses would be mechanical places, sterile, run by chemists in white coats. Maybe most of them are. But Ener-G foods, which is down in the industrial warehouse section of Seattle, long past Safeco field, is friendly and accessible. In fact, after buying their foods and looking at their website, I expected a gargantuan place. I couldn’t believe how small and human it was. When I realized that this is the nation’s largest producer of gluten-free foods, I was even more astonished at how homey and comfortable it is. With only forty employees, the office felt more like a family room than a workplace. And Kathy turned out to be one of the natural, honest people I’ve ever met, open and full of stories. And lord knows I love stories. She’s been working for the company for over fifteen years, lately as the distribution manager. And she can eat gluten, so she doesn’t have to eat this food. But she still does. To a point. “If one of my customers calls in to order food, and wants one I don’t think tastes good, I’ll tell them.” You have to love that.

Kathy told me about the groups of people she works with who need to eat gluten-free. It’s not just celiacs, after all. Parents of autistic children are increasingly putting their kids on a gluten-free diet. They’ve realized that, for reasons we are just starting to understand, gluten works on people with autism like a drug. “Like heroin,” Kathy told me. It addles their minds, makes them lose their focus, and only aggravates what is already going on. (And this makes sense to me, because when I was at the height of my celiac suffering, I felt as though I walked around in a brain fog at all times.) Of course, the medical community is only just starting to understand this, slowly. Mostly, parents have to network among themselves to spread the word. They organize conferences across the country, to share ideas of what works. Kathy goes to almost all of them, and she’s built up a network of connections and friends this way. She’s also the company’s liason for people who suffer from PKU, which is about 1 out of 2000 people in the US. Born without an enzyme necessary to digest protein, those with PKU must not eat meat, cheese, eggs, or tofu. And gluten, being high in protein, is off limits as well. So Ener-G foods isn’t just a food company. For some people, it’s a vital part of life.

One of the parts I love most about this food journey I’m on is meeting people like this, hearing their stories, and learning how to help. Writing this blog is an enormous amount of fun, more every day. But for the most part, I’m keeping it to help people. And I like food companies that are doing the same.

So Kathy gave me a tour of the warehouse. She showed me the enormous mixers required to spin the gluten-free dough into bread and cookies, as large as small cars. Everything made in the factory is completely gluten-free, so there’s never any cross-contamination, and most of it is free of dairy and other allergens. It’s clear the company, founded by a father, now run by his son, is dedicated to making life more comfortable for people with food intolerances. People like me. We walked through the rooms with enormous ovens, which work nonstop, 24 hours a day, to make loaves of yeast-free bread (for those suffering from candida), tapioca loaves, and the new flaxseed bread they are developing. She showed me the delivery room, where they send out shipments to all different parts of the country. Another plant on the East Coast handles their European deliveries, which are multitudinous. And they’ve even been sending shipments to Iraq, where kids with PKU have no supplies. I guess I had never thought of that.

My favorite room, however, and the one most like the Mr. Rogers show, was the one where two men were packaging Egg Replacer. Used by people with PKU and vegans alike, this egg substitute powder fell down from the ceiling in a snaking tube, plashed into a plastic bag, and was then sealed and shoved into a box, which was then closed. All by little mechanical hands, in methodical fashion. I could have stood there for hours, watching the white dust rise up, the rhythmic sway of the pushing and sealing. Whoever invented that was pretty damned cool.

And so was my visit to Ener-G foods. It impressed me to see so many (how do I say this without it sounding weird) non-white faces in the place. After all, Seattle can look pretty homogenous. But the head baker was a small Vietnamese man with a kind face, and he’s been working there for twenty years. I saw men from Africa and women from Asia. When I asked Kathy about it, she told me the company makes a point of hiring people from the International Rescue Committee, so they can give people new to the country their first jobs. The man from Afghanistan they brought over two years ago was able to bring his family to the country this year, and now they are expecting another child.

Ener-G cookie

As we walked back to the front of the warehouse, I was surprised to see how full the display shelves were of foods I had never seen. Strangely, Ener-G foods seems to not have great distribution to Seattle grocery stores, so most of their tastiest foods were a mystery to me. But no longer. Now, I can just drive down to 1st Avenue South and buy myself some cookies. On that day, I didn’t have to, though. Kathy grabbed a plastic bag when we walked through the warehouse and loaded it up with warm cookies for me. They were scrumptious: soft, pure chocolate flavor, and no strange aftertaste, the way I sometimes feel other gluten-free cookies have. And they were just as good two days later, which I know because I forced myself not to eat them all in the car.

Here are some of my favorite Ener-G products:

°cinnamon crackers. Thin, slightly sweet but not too much so, with a real crunch. These are wonderfully unusual.

°corn bread. Not the thick cornbread we think of with chili, but a loaf of bread made with corn. It’s a solid white bread, just okay when cold. But put it in the toaster, and you’ll find the magic elixir: a good, gluten-free bread that crunches when you toast it.

°doughnut holes. Are you kidding me? I thought I’d never eat doughnuts again. I followed Kathy’s advice and put these in the microwave for thirty seconds, and sprinkled them with a little powdered sugar. I had to hide them from myself before I ate them all.

°raisin bread. Dense and moist, studded with raisins, this makes an impeccable French toast.

°granola. Another revelation. Other commercially produced granola is off limits, because of the oats. But this is free of anything suspicious. Made mostly of dates, it’s pretty rich. One-quarter cup on top of good yogurt will do it. But it hit the spot. Also, I've just realized I can use it as a substitute for oats in crisps and crumbles.

As you know, if you’ve been reading this blog, 90% of the time, I like fresh food I made myself, from scratch, from local, organic ingredients, dense with taste and free of guilt. (Except, perhaps, for the butter and cheese.) But sometimes a girl just needs a snack. And these are good ones.

Ener-G foods

I have to be honest and tell you this: before I left, Kathy loaded me up with a box of free food. Smart idea, because now I’m recommending some to you. But I would have done that, on my own, even if she hadn’t given them to me for free. I really believe in this company, and my taste buds don’t lie.

Still, this isn’t a bad gig, really. Meeting great people, learning new facts, and free food!

Mr. Rogers would be proud.

GRANOLA-GINGER COOKIES (from the Ener-G website)

Makes 36-48 cookies
1 cup of dark brown sugar
1/2 cup of butter or margarine
1/4 cup of shortening
1 egg
1-3/4 cup OF Ener-G Rice Mix 20 oz box
1-1/2 tsp of ginger
1 tsp of cinnamon
1/2 tsp of cloves
1/2 tsp of salt
1 tsp of baking powder
1 cup of Ener-G Granola Mix

°Cream the brown sugar, butter or margarine and the shortening together. Beat in the egg. Mix well and set aside.
°Stir together the Rice Mix, ginger, cinnamon, cloves, salt and baking powder. Mix the dry into the butter/shortening mixture. Stir well and add granola. Drop by teaspoonful unto lightly greased cookie sheet. When done allow to sit on cookie sheet for 3 minutes to cool. Cool on plates.
°Bake for 8 to 10 minutes.


At 9:37 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wow, interesting stuff. Gives me hope that a 'little guy' can create a niche in the marketplace.

At 12:57 PM, Blogger Mags said...

How sweet is that? Some knowledge, a free tour, AND a bag of goodies! Lucky you!

You make gluten-free eating sound so fun and interesting. Keep it up!

At 11:17 PM, Blogger Shauna said...

Hey Pragmatic Chef:

You bet. I'm more and more fascinated by (and therefore determined to buy from) the companies that start from a place of urgency besides just making money. I'm thinking a certain spice company could do the same....


Thanks! I'm so glad to know this is interesting for people who must avoid gluten, and the ones who can eat all the gluten they want. That's why I'm sitting here typing.

At 10:58 AM, Blogger Mags said...

Did you see this? It was in the news today:

At 8:07 PM, Blogger Shauna said...


Thanks so much for that link. I hadn't read the article yet. It always makes me happy to see celiac in the news, because I want everyone to be aware of this! A friend of mine in New York has been to the restaurant they featured, and she LOVES it. I'm working with restaurant owners and top chefs in Seattle to help them turn their kitchens more friendly for gluten-free. So thanks for giving me more ammunition!


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