Marguerite Firman has no food issues, but she is elated at the prospect of bringing her gluten- and casein-intolerant children to Rose’s Wheatfree Bakery and Café, 2901 Central St., for pancakes they can eat safely.
“My kids will go crazy,” says Ms. Firman. An Evanstonian, she is seated at a table with a Milwaukee friend who eats casein-free and whose children cannot tolerate gluten (in wheat, rye or barley) or casein (in dairy products). Another friend, Ruth Ott, is a Rogers Park resident who calls herself “a vegetarian who feels better as a vegan.”
The three women are putting Rose’s food to a taste test and pronounce it “very good.”
Meanwhile, owner Rosemarie O’Carroll is doing everything in her power to make sure it is very good. That means the pancakes will have to wait awhile; she and her bakers are still working on perfecting recipes for, among other things, French bread.
Gluten-intolerant herself – and with a mother and daughter similarly sensitive – Ms. O’Carroll knows how hard it is to find palatable substitutes for baked goods containing gluten. “They taste like hockey pucks,” she says of cookies she has tried.
She quotes a University of Chicago study claiming one-third of the population is gluten-sensitive to some degree. “Some people have never reacted,” she explains. “Others have had a precipitating event” that triggers a reaction.” Others, like a 95-year-old customer, have been recently diagnosed but have long suspected a problem.
Gluten is one of two proteins in wheat, rye and barley. The other is gliaden, which, says Ms. O’Carroll, is in every organ in the body. The mechanics of celiac disease, in which gluten causes the body to destroy the intestinal lining, are rather well understood, she says. Celiac disease can lead to problems as varied as osteoporosis or, in children, failure to thrive.
The effects of wheat intolerance on other organs are less understood, says Ms. O’Carroll, adding that the condition has been implicated in (though not said to cause) many autoimmune diseases.
Ms. O’Carroll, a retired U.S. Navy commander as is her husband, moved with their children to Evanston three years ago. About the same time, their 13-year-old daughter, who had known of her gluten sensitivity since age 10, began having severe reactions whenever she “cheated” on her diet.
A swollen face is unacceptable for a girl of 13, says Ms. O’Carroll. To help, mom began baking everything at home; almost no gluten-free products were commercially available.
The baking was full-time work. Just mixing the flour for each recipe – cake, cookies, pie – took a day, she says. She experimented with bean flours purchased from Indian and Pakistani grocers on Chicago’s Devon Street and began thinking about opening a bakery.
In the beginning she used the first gluten-free cookbook, giving the foods her own twist. “Once you learn to substitute,” she says, “you can alter any recipe.” That makes her amenable to accommodating diverse dietary requirements – vegan, diabetic, allergic – at the bakery.
A year ago she took a baking and pastry course at Kendall College, another step toward going commercial. “I’d run big organizations before,” she said. But she had no experience with the food industry.
She passed the required health certification course, then spent the summer in her kitchen, working through recipes with an exchange student she had met at Kendall.
By then the O’Carrolls had concluded their search for a place to accommodate both wholesale and retail outlets. Although she admits this was “maybe ambitious,” Ms. O’Carroll says she was intent on having a café – “a place for people to come.”
In June they purchased the building that had housed Daruma restaurant. Consulting with a bakery engineer, they equipped it with brand-new appliances: huge mixers, a walk-in convection oven, a four-rack pizza oven. Oscar, their state-of-the-art composter, can “eat” up to 400 pounds of scraps a day, says Ms. O’Carroll.
A bread slicer is one of her proudest purchases. For gluten-intolerant people, she explains, wheat-free bread is of no advantage if the slicer is contaminated with wheat products. Perhaps the most useful item is the formula scale. Pre-set for her recipes, it makes the tedious work of measuring a mixture of flours almost easy.
Beyond the equipment, Ms. O’Carroll says she is relying on only the finest ingredients. Everything is organic, including the butter; hamburger beef is grass-fed and antibiotic-free.
The café is in the hands of veteran Evanston cook Sue O’Malley. But, says Ms. O’Carroll, “I have to train all the bakers. I couldn’t find a school.”
They plan eventually to serve lunch Monday through Thursday, dinner on Friday and Saturday and brunch on Sunday. But for now, says Ms. O’Carroll, “We have to try and start simple.” They are currently open every day, offering scones, cookies, brownies, sandwiches, and coffee and espresso drinks. In a windowed booth, a cake decorator is embellishing cakes for people who have probably not been able to eat them before.
Rosemarie O’Carroll seems to be everywhere – in the kitchen, waiting tables, questioning customers about their satisfaction. “I know there’s a need, if we can just do it right,” she says. Responding to a comment that she seems relaxed, she smiles and admits she is “maybe just tired.”