Gail Phares was compelled to close her Chestnut Street bakery in Elkins, "Cakes Galore and More," when she developed intestinal problems, and itchy and bruised skin and her withdrawn temperament became overwhelming. Three years later when her children began experiencing similar symptoms, a number of tests eventually showed that gluten, dairy, egg and soy intolerances were to blame.
Despite these obstacles, Phares would still need to put food on the table for her five children. So over a number of years, she altered her and her family's favorite dishes and recipes to meet their nutritional needs. When one approach was unsuccessful, she kept notes, and when she had the extra money, would experiment more. Approximately five years later, she produced and published "Easy to Be Allergen-Free," a recipe book of "Family Favorites" that are gluten, dairy, egg, soy and nut free. In it are 105 recipes, short stories behind some of them and advice for allergen-free cooking and baking. Following their switch to a largely allergen-free diet, Phares' family's digestive problems, headaches, skin irritation and other troubles faded away.
What started as a goal to organize recipes for her family turned into an ambition to inform others that enjoyable food could still be had even for those who suffer from food allergies and intolerances. Seven months later, she has sold more than 100 copies in a number of locations including Good Energy Foods, Mainline Books and Beverly Books and Antiques and personally.
Phares began selling her baked goods at the Elkins Farmers Market at the end of the summer 2010 season, and has returned this year. Preparations for the Saturday event begin each Thursday with shopping for the particular ingredients such as gluten-free oats, brown rice flour, applesauce and rice milk. Phares finds what she needs at Good Energy Foods, Kroger, Walmart and the Hometown Market in Buckhannon. She often prepares her bread mixes on Thursday as well, in hopes of making the next day more manageable.
Each Friday, what she describes as her "big baking day," she prepares everything for the Saturday market. By around 9 a.m., she is baking bread. She mixes her muffin and cupcake batters and then, constantly loading and unloading the oven, bakes her muffins, cupcakes and mini versions of each. She finishes with cookies and more bread. Over the course of the day, she runs the dishwasher three or four times, she says. By late evening, she has baked four to six loafs of bread, two to three dozen large cupcakes and muffins, at least six dozen mini cupcakes and muffins and eight dozen cookies.
The day of the market begins early with icing the cupcakes, slicing the bread and loading the van with all of the baked goods. Phares' mother, Barbara Collins, goes with her to market every week to help, and her children, Elizabeth, 9, and Autumn, 6, take turns tagging along. After setting up the tent and unfolding the tables, putting up the "Allergen Free" and "Baked Goods" signs, and setting out the various treats and nourishments, Phares is ready for customers. She says that she does well at the market with both regulars and newcomers each week.
Special to The Inter-Mountain Mallory Bracken
Gail Phares shares a cookie with her youngest daughter, Autumn, 6, while baking for the Elkins Farmers Market. Because of her and her family’s food intolerances, Phares wrote a recipe book, ‘Easy to Be Allergen-Free,’ and hopes to make allergen-free cooking and baking easier for others.
Joe Carpenter, of Fairmont, was pleasantly surprised the first time he tasted Phares' blueberry muffins. Three weeks later, he has made the nearly 80-mile drive each Saturday since for her products, describing them as "excellent quality."
Carpenter, who doesn't have food allergies, says that he enjoys the flavor and taste of the food.
"I've already recommended them to bunches of people," he says.
Phares doesn't earn enough money to make a large profit, but that's not her goal.
"The main purpose is to let them know about the book and that they can do it, too; and that if they need any help, there's a number in there that they can call me. I'll help them, I'll walk them through it if they need to," she says. "That was my whole purpose, to help people out."
According to Dr. Shari Lieberman in WholeFoods Magazine Online, the statistics of those with celiac disease, a digestive condition in which gluten interferes with one's absorption of nutrients, have substantially increased.
"It is now estimated that one out of 133 people have celiac disease," Lieberman says, adding that "as many as 29 percent of people are gluten sensitive and approximately 81 percent of Americans have a genetic disposition toward gluten sensitivity."
Lactose intolerance also affects a large group of people. According to the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, it is estimated that between 30 million and 50 million American adults are lactose intolerant.
While those with diet restrictions can greatly benefit from Phares' baked goods, recipe book and advice, those without food allergies or intolerances can enjoy them, too. Phares says that regulars to her farmers market booth often aren't compelled to eat allergen-free foods, but buy her products simply because they like them.
Phares stresses the importance of having the IgG (immunoglobulin G) delayed reaction test performed to identify the specific allergies that one may have.
"If we didn't find out about it, we'd still be going downhill," she says. At the time of her daughter's test, they cost nearly $400, but over the years have become more accessible and affordable. For anyone concerned about their possible food allergies and intolerances, Phares recommends Dr. Jenny Cross in Elkins who specializes in otolaryngology and offers the test and counseling to help with dietary changes. Dr. Cross can be reached at 304-637-6302. Phares also recommends Dr. Nitesh Ratnakar who specializes in gastroenterology and can be reached at 304-637-2360.