Down East 2013 ©
A year and a half ago, Beth George, of Scarborough, was a mother of three children — and a very busy lawyer. In her work, particularly as a guardian ad litem, she represented countless children suffering from an array of psychological and behavioral problems.
“The number of kids with so many different diagnoses really started to bother me,” says George, a tall, slender woman with intense eyes. “It was pretty much the mantra of the courts and the juvenile justice system to ask, ‘How are they doing at home?’ ‘How are they doing at school?’ And then, ‘Are they on their meds?’ ”
What this passionate young mother and attorney never imagined was that her growing unease with child-prescribed psychotropic drugs would go from a professional concern to a personal crisis.
From a young age, her son, Spencer, began experiencing hot, red ears; emotional volatility; and unpredictable irritability. As he got older, the behavioral problems at school and at home became more pronounced. “We went through batteries of tests,” George explains, “occupational therapies, speech and language tests, neurological exams. . . .” The diagnoses were all over the map, from Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder to Asperger’s, a form of autism.
Based on her experience representing children, George had a feeling that medication was not the answer for Spencer. A trip to a nutritionist in Minnesota and an encounter with a fellow Maine mother who claimed to have brought her son back from the brink of autism eventually brought George to a realization. The real culprit was Spencer’s diet: specifically wheat, artificial ingredients, and high fructose corn syrup. “I kept saying, ‘I’m a mother of three kids, and I’m a lawyer, how do I do diet?’ Now I’m just floored that I was so resistant.”
George eventually eliminated all wheat and processed food additives from her son’s life. The difference was undeniable. Among other significant improvements, over time Spencer went from receiving special treatment in school to qualifying for the gifted and talented program. But there was a significant downside, too. Then-eight-year-old Spencer was forced to give up many of his favorite foods. Heartbroken, George asked her son what food he couldn’t live without. His answer was bagels.
So George did what any concerned mother would do: she tried her hand at baking bagels. It took three weeks of experimenting but eventually George produced a proper bagel. More than that, she produced a delicious one with a nuttier flavor than a traditional bagel, though not quite as chewy. The secret ingredient was spelt, an ancient grain related to wheat that many wheat-sensitive people, including Spencer, can eat without negative reactions. Soon word of her wheat-free creation spread among family and friends, and after some gentle nudging, George certified her own mother’s home kitchen so she could sell the bagels to local stores.
Then, last year, a fortuitous meeting at a Portland gathering of Mainers of Middle Eastern descent changed George’s life. A buyer from Whole Foods Market was in attendance and sampled her bagels. Dazzled, she put in an order. At the same time, George’s alma mater, Bates College, requested thirty to forty dozen a week, well beyond anything George had ever made before. Unsure of how to transform her food sideline into a real business, the still-active attorney turned to friends Bob and Julie Carter, the founders of the former Fresh Samantha juice line, for advice. “They told me, ‘Beth, you just do it.’ ” And so George did.
Today, her 1,500 square-foot Spelt Right (www.speltrightbaking.com ) production facility overlooks the Royal River from Yarmouth’s Sparhawk mill. With whitewashed walls, high ceilings, and mammoth windows, the bakery houses an oversized mixer, a bagel cutter, walk-in freezers, and one huge oven that bakes hundreds of spelt bagels at a time (the five varieties aptly named after or by George’s children). George also makes wheat-free pizza dough and focaccia. All together she goes through more than three hundred pounds of spelt flour per week. The aromas of George’s pristine ingredients — fresh rosemary, olive oil, sea salt, sesame — fill the open space occupied by George and her one employee from 4:30 in the morning until mid afternoon every day.
On sale in the frozen-food sections of health food stores across the state and freshly made for a handful of markets and restaurants, George’s products are popular, even though the ingredients push the prices up to almost double those of their wheat counterparts. And regional distribution is increasing at a speedy rate as Spelt Right’s reputation grows. “I have a wheat intolerance,” explains new customer Jean Dionne, of Boston, “so I’m always on the lookout for wheat-free products — in particular, bread. I was in Portland, at the Whole Foods store, and I tried Spelt Right’s bagels. I was so happy to finally find something that tasted like a bagel. . . . Now it’s just a bummer that I can’t get them here in Boston.” (Beth George, genuinely humble and seemingly surprised by her own success, is on her way to fixing that problem.)
She also hopes to add a nonprofit foundation to Spelt Right to raise awareness of Spencer’s story and others like it. Having left the Bar for the bakery, George says she has no regrets. “As a lawyer you can come up with a lot of cockeyed arguments,” she says. “You win and feel kind of guilty about it. It’s so much better for me to be arguing for something that I believe in.”
And if something you believe in is healthy and tastes delicious, well, that’s the best outcome of all.
For more information on spelt, click here.