When baker Heather Morris decided to put her husband Cal, co-owner of Church Street Coffee and Books, on the paleo diet, he was skeptical.
“What exactly are we talking about?” Cal asked his wife. “What am I giving up? Coffee? Cigarettes?” The paleo diet, based on what our ancestors supposedly ate beginning 2.6 million years ago during the Paleolithic period, consists of fresh fruits, vegetables, meats, nuts and healthful oils. Grains, dairy, legumes, sugars and processed items are restricted. The diet is tough for anyone, but seems unimaginable for a family that runs a café and bakery.
“I’m not sending you into the Himalayas here,” Heather responded. “Give me eight weeks. If you’re sick of it after eight weeks, we’ll quit and figure something else out.”
The figuring out wasn’t about participating in trend diets, or really about diets at all. Cal has the painful and irritating autoimmune skin disorder psoriasis. Through recommendations from various friends and a little online digging, Heather uncovered the possible link between Cal’s disorder and the food he was eating. “Your body is obviously not happy with something,” she told him. Although steroid treatments helped relieve discomfort, that process was expensive and not a cure. And the psoriasis “always came back like a swarm of bees,” Heather says.
For years, Cal struggled to be in his own skin, literally. The condition is ironic for a man who, metaphorically speaking, oozes comfort at simply being Cal, a guy who loves his job, reading, and his three kids, each named for a character in a Wendell Berry novel.
“Sometimes, the itching is so bad, and his skin is so raw, he’ll bleed through his clothes. And it doesn’t bother him. Well, the pain bothers him, but his appearance doesn’t. He doesn’t care,” Heather laughs.
Heather and Cal met while working at another local coffee shop. Back then, Heather, who once trained and performed as a ballerina for years and was raised in rural upstate New York, marveled at her friend Cal’s diet: Mountain Dew, Happy Meals, cigarettes. “But he was happy as all get-out,” Heather says.
“Growing up, my family ate naturally. My grandparents lived ten minutes away,” Heather remembers. “They had a massive acreage of land with gardens. My family had our own garden. I didn’t know what a Little Debbie was until I left home. We weren’t allowed soft drinks. We didn’t grow up with any kind of processed stuff. I didn’t have a palate for it.”
When Heather speaks of her pastoral upbringing, there is both an air of romanticism and a twinge of nostalgia in her voice. Heather has straight, dark hair and fierce eyes. While she is anything but soft-spoken—laughter erupts from her thin frame without warning—there is certainly a gentleness present. Passion coupled with tenderness. And humor.
“I’m not a fad diet person. They’re funny. And obviously don’t work,” she says. “Use butter. Use cream. Don’t use I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter. Your body is probably thinking the same thing. Like, what is it?”
This empathetic fervor serves her well in the roles she plays: mother, wife, baker. With the paleo diet, Heather foresaw the potential of a sustainable lifestyle. She wasn’t interested in the craze so much as a cure for Cal. They began in the summer. In between early mornings at Church Street and evenings with the kids, Cal took Epsom salt baths, read in the sunshine and drank lots of water—all the while adhering to the strict diet.
When he agreed to the eight weeks, Heather taped a note on the refrigerator: “Cal’s experiment / 8 weeks in hell.”
The first day, Cal called home from Church Street. “Woman, you’re killing me. My head hurts,” he told his wife.
“Have you had your coffee? You know you can have coffee?” she asked.
“No,” he told her. “It tastes awful without cream and sugar.”
“You own a coffee shop and have conceivably the nation’s best coffee [Primavera] and won’t drink it without cream and sugar?” Heather was equal parts incredulous and amused. “Put honey in it.”
That was just day one.
But three days into the initial cleanse, Heather and Cal marveled at his skin, already healing. Three weeks into the project, after noticeable differences in energy levels and a continual regeneration of healthy skin, Cal told Heather to take down the note. “I’ve never felt this good in my life,” he said.
Since then, the Morris family has followed elements of paleo loosely, specifically by limiting gluten, which initially deterred Heather from such a diet. “I’m part Italian,” she says. “I thought, ‘How do I eat without wheat?’ I thought, ‘What’s wrong with gluten? You people are nuts. Gluten is good. Wheat is good.’” Gluten is a substance present in cereal grains, especially wheat, and is responsible for the elastic texture of dough.
Back to the online digging, Heather uncovered the potential source for so many gluten disturbances in the U.S. As the rates of celiac disease (a serious small intestine condition caused by gluten allergy) and gluten intolerance rise, many eyes are on genetically modified wheat production.
“It’s frustrating,” Heather says. “I feel powerless. I can’t grow my own wheat crop right now.”
Last month, Californian activists tried and failed to pass Proposition 37, an initiative to require distinct labeling for all genetically modified foods. On Election Day, Dr. David Katz, Director of Yale Prevention Research Center wrote the following for the Huffington Post:
“There may be reason [to be wary of genetically modified foods] in epidemiology as well. We are substantially uncertain about why rates of gluten intolerance and celiac disease are rising; genetic modification of food may be a factor. Some go so far as to declare modern wheat a ‘poison,’ […] Genetic modification may be a factor, as well, in everything from food allergies, to irritable bowel syndrome, to behavioral and cognitive disorders occurring with increasing frequency in our children.”
Although research has yet to show the link between genetically modified wheat and food intolerances, the Morris kids, ages 7, 5 and nearly 3, are all too familiar with gastrointestinal disturbances.
“Many of their friends in class have food allergies,” Heather says. “It’s not that weird for them. So the kids are in to it.”
The customers of Church Street are into it, too. When Cal and co-owner Carrie Rollwagen opened the coffee shop in 2011, Heather designed the menu.
“My basis when designing the menu was keeping it all natural,” Heather says, noting the menu is certainly not all paleo, gluten-free or vegan. “I had a hunch that frozen four-day-old pastries will be noticeably different than what’s baked fresh daily. It might take a couple weeks to catch on, but people will notice: this tastes good, every time.”
Heather devises recipes for all menu items and trains the additional baking staff. Her list of ingredients embraces what’s hearty and healthy: butter, eggs, almond flour, buckwheat, chia seed, oats and wheat germ. Her menu includes a gluten-free chocolate soufflé cake, sunrise cookies with apricot jam topped in toasted quinoa, and chocolate orange marmalade minis.
“The chocolate marmalade mini I made with my mom growing up for Christmas. That was my job. When we first opened the shop, we immediately sold out of them. I love a really rich sweet paired with citrus or salt.” Heather admits not eating from the bake case was the most difficult part of the Morris family’s summer diet. She also admits that every now and then, everyone needs a break-up cookie, chocolate chip topped with a little salt.
“The biggest compliment we get is, ‘We love your stuff. It’s not so sweet.’ The sunrise cookie and the sweet mud bar contain super foods and no sugar. They’re good sustainable treats. They’re sweet but you get long-term protein, too.” For sweetness in other pastries, Heather incorporates cane sugar, molasses, currants or agave nectar.
“I hope we keep seeing trends for healthy eating,” she says. “We have to live within our means. We don’t get to have fresh blueberries in February unless we’ve canned or frozen them. We should live within the seasons of the land. We always have bigger and better. It’s at our fingertips all the time. But what if you got what your garden yields? Or your community garden? Or what’s available at your local market?”
At the request of customers, Heather developed a couple brunch items for the weekends—a garden brunch bite and a bacon biscuit with chives, cottage cheese and currants. “We try to pay attention to what people want. And we’re believers in changing palates.”
That belief led to the Morris family to evaluating and adopting a salubrious lifestyle that led Cal to a cure. That belief, as the enchanting baker Heather Morris enacts it, might lead you, too, to trying new things. ‘Try this,” she says. “We think you’ll like it.”
Church Street Coffee and Books is located at 81 Church St. in Mountain Brook and open Mon. – Sat 6-10 / Sun 7-10 am.