Flour fix

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Polson woman creates, markets gluten-free blend

The birth of her daughter Lexie took Rachel Carlyle-Gauthier's life down an unexpected - and at the time unwelcome - road.

"We brought her home from the hospital," the Polson woman said of the birth of her youngest daughter. "She started screaming and never stopped."

The doctor told her it was colic. It should stop in eight weeks, he said.

It lasted eight months.

When introduced later to regular food, Lexie started getting "terrible rashes," Gauthier recalled. "She started vomiting after all her meals and had digestive diarrhea. This was our life until she was 18 months old," and it was taking a toll on the entire family.

That was when an emergency-room doctor suggested Lexie be tested for celiac disease, a condition which Gauthier said is found in one out of 133 people. It prevents them from digesting gluten - the mixture of proteins found in the kernels of wheat, barley, rye and oats.

Gauthier asked her pediatrician for the tests. He refused, telling Gauthier it was such a rarity that any testing almost certainly would be pointless. In turn, she refused to leave the office until he handed over the order.

He capitulated. The tests came back positive.

The treatment? A strict gluten-free diet.

Gauthier immediately did what she could to avoid gluten but, as a self-described "ordinary mom," she wasn't sure how to completely erase gluten from Lexie's food. She researched online. She visited health food stores. She turned to her naturopathic doctor. She talked with friends.

"I thought, 'This was a total lemon situation. I'm going to turn it into lemonade,'" Gauthier said of her dogged determination.

Finally she landed on an answer - substitute her regular flours with those made from white rice, sweet rice, tapioca, potato starch and almond. Combine them in various proportions for different recipes and, vo"la, delicious gluten-free foods.

"There was an almost immediate change in my daughter when she went gluten-free," Gauthier said. "She stopped screaming, she wanted to be held. She's a completely different kid."

That was in October 2005. By December, she had geared up to blend her own gluten-free flour mixture and create recipes that use it.

"I'm not somebody who just goofs around and thinks about things," Gauthier said.

Years earlier in high school, she had unknowingly laid the foundation by cooking for a school of 200 girls. For a brief time, she had her own cake-decorating business. Later she studied for a year and a half at Bon Vivant School of Cooking in Seattle.

"So I had all the science behind it, I knew the way things work," she said. "There was a stepping stone to everything. It's almost like God knew I would be needing this later on."

She started using various gluten-free products in her own recipes, but cookies fell apart when sliding off the baking sheet. She used xanthan gum as a binder, but it was gritty. Breads and pancakes were hard as rocks. Foods were bland.

It took her about four months before she landed on the magic blend that she now markets in 2-pound and 4-pound bags as Gluten Free Mama's Rice Almond Blend.

Before landing on the blend, though, she'd been creating recipes that called for measured amounts of four or five different flours for each concoction. It meant more dedication on an ordinary shopping trip, and more attention in the kitchen.

Still, she enjoyed the process.

"It was interesting and a challenge. I threw away a lot of recipes," Gauthier said. "This is the most fun I've had in life. You never know what you're going to get when you create a recipe. But now, nine times out of 10, they work out."

She took samples to friends and refined her recipes from their feedback. Almond meal was a key ingredient, she learned, as was high-quality rice flour.

"People started raving about it. I was going to write a recipe book anyway," listing the amounts of each individual flour to use in each recipe, she said.

"Then I stumbled on this flour blend and centered (the book) on this blend."

After many sampling sessions and plenty of perusals over the recipes, one friend told Gauthier that if she would just blend the flour mix and bag it herself, people would buy it - and they'd be more likely to use her recipes.

Her first lesson was in packaging - designing a logo, creating a label with nutritional facts and bar code, getting state approval. She researched flour suppliers and prices.

Then came production.

A convoluted road led to buying a 1,000-pound, $6,500 flour-mixing machine and setting it up in a converted, food-safe garage in her back yard in Polson. She buys her blend ingredients by the pallet, funnels them into the mixer, fills resealable plastic bags, gets help from her mother-in-law to affix the labels and delivers everything by hand.

Toting her homemade brochures and samples, Gauthier puts on a smile and walks into stores to introduce herself as the "Gluten Free Mama."

Her first clients were Super 1 Foods and Mission Mountain Market in Polson, where she sold 200 bags in her first two months. Now she's hooked up

with the Good Food Store in Missoula. She's working to line up a Western Montana distributor for broader exposure.

A Seattle-area distributor already has placed her products throughout that market.

Recently Gauthier lined up a distributor for Eastern Montana and, a couple weeks ago, sent out 300 pounds bound for Bozeman, Billings and Great Falls.

But none of this could have happened, she insisted, without the Missoula Community Development Center. Its busines s development and marketing consultants gave her answers before she knew what questions to ask.

She teamed up with pie-baking friend Billie McCrea to publish "Gluten Free Mama's Best Baking Recipes." She was in Evergreen's Super 1 Foods on Thursday and at Withey's Health Foods on Saturday for book signings.

She'll keep selling the recipe book, but plans to add a pancake mix and a brownie mix in another three months. Next will come mixes for breads, scones and cakes.

Beyond that, Gauthier is leaving the future in bigger hands than her own.

"I really think this whole thing is inspired by God," she said. She's willing to keep up the hard work, but "I have dedicated this business to Him. There's an inspirational Scripture on each page (of the recipe book). And I pray over the product before it goes out, that it will bless people."

On the Web: www.glutenfreemama.com

Reporter Nancy Kimball can be reached at 758-4483 or by e-mail at nkimball@dailyinterlake.com

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