In October, a bakery in Concord, Mass., made national headlines when the FDA sanctioned it for putting love in its granola. But since then, all I've really wanted was to share that recipe with my eating-disordered clients.
Why, you might ask, would any therapist encourage anyone with eating issues to bake the high-calorie breakfast treat? Because if I could share the love the FDA ordered removed, I could send home an essential message: Love not only makes food taste better, loving yourself helps you feel better, look better and eat better.
Selfishly, I also wanted the recipe for when fall's radiant landscape fades to frozen still life. On warm, sunny days here in Concord, I love strolling to Nashoba Brook Bakery for a cup of strawberry yogurt sprinkled with its now-infamous "love granola." But when dark, weepy skies glaze the sidewalks ice-gray, I'd rather practice what I preach by firing up the oven and making my own batch of this simple, not-too-sweet, perfectly crunchy granola.
So I went on a quest for the love-fortified recipe, encountering many obstacles and intriguing characters before I stumbled upon a real treasure. No surprise, the treasure was somewhat different than expected, but something far more valuable, especially to eating-disordered clients.
The quest began in a magical place with a handshake and a seat, at a picnic table overlooking the creek behind Nashoba Brook Bakery. No average customer, that lanky guy on the other side of the table — the one wearing an "Amazing" T-shirt, khaki shorts and a thinning boyish cut — is John Gates. You know, the bakery CEO and co-owner who defies the old adage: "There is no such thing as bad publicity."
Since receiving the FDA's warning letter this fall, enumerating a laundry list of infractions, from labeling breaches to health code violations, Gates has been defending the good name of his nearly 20-year-old bakery.
After exhausting interviews about said violations, Gates happily agreed to share the story behind his granola, if not the recipe.
What Makes The Granola So Good
"When I asked Karen Collins, the original pastry chef responsible for all our recipes, 'What makes the granola so good?' She said, 'Well, I put love in it,' " remembers Gates. The laugh lines around Gates' hazel eyes crinkle as he recalls that sweet exchange with Collins, one of the bakery's founders and the ex-wife of Nashoba's current co-owner, Stuart Witt.
"That's just perfect!" Gates remembers thinking. "How can we not say that when we list the ingredients?"
Bittersweet backstory short: A few years later, when Collins leaves Witt and the Nashoba family, she leaves her recipes with the bakery. Over the next 13 years, the industrious pastry chef creates all new recipes for a bakery business of her own, and all but forgets her old granola recipe. Until the love in her honey-sweetened "love-child" makes headline news and the memory comes rushing back.
CEO Gates won't share the recipe until after he checks with his partner Witt, who ultimately decides against sharing their trade secret. I get it — since the FDA stuck its nose in the ingredient list, granola sales are up. There's absolutely no financial incentive in sharing the love, I mean recipe.
Undeterred, I set my sights on the last person able to lead me to the holy grail. Yup, the recipe creator and Witts' ex-wife: Karen Collins. Eager to help, Collins suggests we talk at Bisousweet Confections, her wholesale bakery business in Shirley, Mass. Atop a Rapunzel-like brick tower and across a 5,000-square-foot commercial kitchen, I find the beatific chef, elbow deep in pastry dough. The air is sweet with cinnamon rugelach until Collins closes the door on her walk-in closet of an office.
"I should have told you not come," she apologizes. "That's not my recipe!"
During the five or six years she baked for Nashoba, Collins created many a granola recipe, all with "love" in them. But she thinks the signature recipe must have morphed over time or got lost in translation with the comings and goings of bakers.
"The recipe they're making now is absolutely not mine," says Collins.
Nashoba's recipe is fat free, but she always made hers with butter or oil or some kind of fat.
"I put a lot of love into everything I make," says the mother of three, who makes her living from cookies, cupcakes and other handmade desserts. "The thing I love about making granola is you mix it with your hands. You're not relying on any other piece of equipment other than measuring cups, tablespoons and a bowl."
And yet, when she heard about Nashoba's granola woes, this baker blamed herself. "The first thing I said is, 'OMG, I think that's my fault. I used to type love on the ingredient label. But they can't still be making the same granola.' "
In fact, no one, not even Collins, still makes the original recipe or even has a copy.
Loving Yourself, And Loving Food
As I prepare to go home empty-handed, Collins takes a phone call from her son, then tells me one last story — about a girl with an eating disorder who ends up a pastry chef and finds peace and happiness in baking. I almost pinch myself because the love-laced story is both an unexpected treasure and a heart-warming ending to the loveless granola quest.
Once upon a time, Collins was bulimic. From age 16 to 34, she would binge, then lock herself in the bathroom and purge.
"I threw up all through college and all through three pregnancies," she admits. "I was really sick. I ended up in an inpatient facility in Chicago."
Treatment was essential, but love proved to be the most important ingredient in Collins' successful recovery. Initially, it was love for her children and acceptance of her parental responsibility, and, over time, love for herself, too.
"To be a better parent," she explains, "I needed to open the bathroom door. I needed to stop," which she did, cold turkey, around the time she got divorced. "Fortunately, I had enough good things in place that I was able to prioritize motherhood" — and eventually, her own health – "over the eating disorder."
She also needed to remind herself: "If I eat and get fat, I will deal with it. If it makes me feel uncomfortable, tough! But throwing up is not an option. And that was that."
As quick and easy as Collins' recovery might sound, she thinks it's important to underscore what a long and arduous process it's been.
"I have sat in physical discomfort for what felt like days because of a decision I made to eat too much," she says. "These moments felt like they would never pass, but they did, and I held onto that. I'm 47 years old now, and I've been eating-disorder-free for 13 years. There is no struggle. I eat what I want" — including granola.
I thanked Collins for her honesty and asked if she'd be willing to share a favorite granola recipe. (Then my quest would be complete.)
The generous pastry maker was more than willing to share her chunk-filled take on big time local chef Joanne Chang's recipe.
2½ cups old-fashioned whole rolled oats
1½ cups toasted wheat germ
2 teaspoons cinnamon
1 teaspoon salt
¾ cup canola oil
½ - ¾ cup maple syrup
2 teaspoons vanilla
- Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
- Line a baking sheet with parchment paper and set aside.
- In a large bowl, mix all ingredients until thoroughly combined.
- On the paper-lined baking sheet, pour and spread the mixture into one even layer.
- Bake for 10 minutes, remove the baking sheet from the oven and stir with a spoon or spatula. Bake an additional 10-15 minutes, stirring once more.
- When the oats are golden brown, remove from the oven and let cool.
- Finally (the best part): Break granola into large chunks and store in an airtight container.
Plus she provided general instructions for infusing granola with love:
"Enjoy every single part of the process," Collins instructs. "If you're in a bad mood and baking makes you happy, you should start baking sooner. If the last thing you ever want to do is bake, getting a manicure is a much better option than making granola."
Jean Fain is a Harvard Medical School-affiliated therapist and the author of "The Self-Compassion Diet." This post first appear on WBUR's The ARTery.