Mast Cell Activation Syndrome Feed

My 30-Year Battle with a Disease I Couldn't Name

Lisa Brunette 1989
High school, 1989.

By Lisa Brunette

In my early 20s I wrote for a fledgling arts newspaper here in St. Louis called Intermission Magazine, and one of the columnists was a New Age devotee named Jeannie Breeze. I don't know if 'Breeze' was her real name or a pen name chosen for its metaphorical quality, but my legal last name is Brunette, which is a family name, so anything's possible. Jeannie was a real character; she always wore a purple knit beanie (yes, even in summer), and she fluffed auras for a living when she wasn't penning columns.

Lisa B&W1995
On a bluff overlooking the Mississippi, 1995.

Jeannie once pulled me aside to say she "sensed" the physical pain I was in, and that surprised me because I didn't think I showed any outward signs. Maybe I did and didn't realize it (I'm not known for my poker face), or maybe Jeannie really was "in tune" with this kind of thing. But either way, she did me a real kindness: She gave me a poem called "Putting the Pain to Sleep." In it the speaker sang a lullaby to her pain, as if singing a child to sleep. It was maybe a little hokey for the edgy youth I was at the time, or at least fancied I was, but it helped.  

I've thought about that poem a lot over the years, and I've tried to put to sleep many a pain.

Back then I had two diagnoses for the symptoms I'd experienced since high school: 1) endometriosis and 2) interstitial cystitis (IC). Neither is very easy to talk about. Both center on inherently "embarrassing" parts of the body. The quest for the diagnoses themselves was painful and invasive, involving catheters and laparoscopic cameras and sample pieces of my internal tissue removed for examination. During one particularly painful procedure, a nurse assistant said:

"You just have to ask yourself, Why me? The answer? Because you can take it."  

I did not punch her in the face, but maybe I should have.

Lisa 1997
In 1997.

When a doctor wanted to put me on a drug that would essentially throw my body into 'fake menopause' in my early 20s, I got a second opinion. The new MD tossed out the endometriosis diagnosis but doubled down on IC. There's no cure for it, but we tried all of the available treatments. None of them worked.

Now I'd like to cue a montage sequence spanning more than a decade. It shows me living, laughing, and loving while simultaneously struggling with discomfort and at times acute pain (because that's what we do, right?) I want you to imagine the last UTI you had, how that SUPER sucked for you. Now imagine that's your life. There's no antibiotic for it, no moment of relief, just persistent pain and a blur of time spent in the bathroom.

Which is not to say I didn't have some nice periods of decreased symptoms, and even for brief spells, total remission. A good diet and exercise seemed to help, as well as stress-reduction. Exercise and diet were always easier to control than stress, though. Ya feel me?

Lisa_2002
On a beach in the Florida Keys, 2002.

Complicating the quest for a cure were some other health issues in the form of "allergies." Throughout childhood, I had awful hay fever, and I also often reacted to food with severe heartburn and systemic digestive distress. Attempts to control the reactions through diet were met with little success, though I tried a wheat-free diet for a time. I was also a vegetarian for 13 years and a vegan for a good portion of that, but I was miserable pretty much the whole time on a diet high in beans, nuts, and soy.

Prone to hives and rashes, it was often difficult to pinpoint a trigger for the reaction. Unlike other people I know with distinct food allergies, I didn't react to any food consistently enough to rule out the offenders. I was diagnosed with asthma and given an inhaler for the wheezing and chest congestion and told to take antihistamines for the rhinitis, but there wasn't anything anyone could think to do about the food.

By the time I'd migrated to the Pacific Northwest in my early 30s, my allergies were deemed severe enough to finally get me in to see an allergist. He prescribed an epinephrine pen and put me on a diet of only meat, vegetables, and white rice. But I was still a vegetarian, left with only white rice and vegetables. After developing walking pneumonia, I broke the 13-year meat fast.

Lisa2007
On a Washington state beach, 2007.

At this time I also began to make changes in my environment to reduce allergens. I zipped up the whole bed, box spring and mattress, in a plastic covering; donated rugs, down comforters, and other sneeze-inducing items; and washed all my bedding and towels in hot water. But I swear to this day it was hot yoga that got me out of the allergy loop. After a year of regular Bikram yoga practice, I felt better in all ways, head to toe. 

However, yoga only kept the wolves at bay for so long. After a few years, the allergies resumed even worse than before, despite a regular, committed yoga practice. With them came a new level of digestive distress, along with extreme night sweats, severe insomnia, a crazy amount of ringing in the ears, perceived hearing loss, benign cysts, joint pain, and inflammation.  It's a party all the time when you're giving blood, urine, and stool samples, undergoing procedures like colonoscopy and mammography before you're old enough to warrant them, and then being diagnosed with some third-world, parasitic disease.

Yeah, that's right. I had hookworm.

My MD had missed it; I'd finally resorted to paying out-of-pocket for the services of an irritable bowel disease clinic, which my insurance wouldn't cover. Not even after the hookworm discovery. It's so rare in the States, I had to travel to three different pharmacies to piece together enough of the drug meant to eradicate it. It wasn't that the hookworm infestation caused the other symptoms, though. It was just part of it. The theory was that since my system is always inflamed and reacting to foods, the hookworm somehow took hold and stuck around - for how long was anybody's guess. Hookworm isn't even supposed to survive in cool climates like the Pacific Northwest, and I'd left the tropics of Florida a full decade before this.

Lisa 2013
In 2013.

By my 40s I had to give up fruit juice, I could barely tolerate alcohol, and soy was a huge problem. There seemed to be nothing I could do for the insomnia and night sweats, and I wondered if I were heading into the great 'pause a bit early. The IC roared back with tremendous severity, and a catheter scope (now with video!) found landscapes of scar tissue lining my bladder, including one particularly gnarly beast that looked like the boss at the end of a video game.

Worst for me, the digestive symptoms went into overdrive, and my eyes became increasingly sensitive. Somewhat desperate by this point and not finding a whit of relief though traditional medicine, I tried vitamins and supplements, acupuncture, cleanse diets, the Whole 30, wheat-free/gluten-free/dairy-free/soy-free/egg-free/taste-free/satisfaction-free diets. I took up Pilates and dance. I flirted with meditation, joined a spiritual center, and even went to see someone calling himself the "bone whisperer." But things continued to get worse. 

Lisa2016
In 2016, because life's a merry-go-round.

Flash-forward to just two years ago, when I made a last-ditch effort to treat with two things I hadn't yet tried: medicinal herbs and Maya abdominal therapy

You might remember a couple of articles posted this year on the blog from Amanda Jokerst of Forest + Meadow Apothecary and Clinic. She shared her thoughts on how to foster a healthy immune system and how to support your immune system with herbs. I met her at a farmer's market, of all places. The final clue to my lifelong health mystery came from her.

By now you're likely wondering how all of these painful, annoying (though thankfully not life-threatening) symptoms relate to each other. Or maybe you've sussed out that they're all part of the same autoimmune disease. Good job, detective!

After Amanda and I went through - over the course of a year - absolutely every known cause and treatment for what might ail me, she proposed a couple of possible diagnoses:

Mast Cell Activation Syndrome (MCAS) and Small Intestinal Bacterial Overgrowth (SIBO).

6a01b7c6dfbed3970b0240a4d88cd7200d
Last year.

But of course Amanda will be the first to tell you she isn't a medical doctor. She referred me to a gastroenterologist whose specialty includes both MCAS and SIBO. 

It took me a year to get in because Dr. Leonard Weinstock has a loooong waiting list, and also COVID-19 happened. In the meantime, I tried another, more available general allergist, who was only helpful in a small way, switching my at this point regular antihistamine from Zyrtec to Allegra, which has fewer side effects for me because it doesn't cross the blood/brain barrier. Otherwise, though, I could do nothing but wait.

During that wait, my symptoms worsened further, to the point where I now react to a wide range of health and beauty products and household allergens. Eating in restaurants has become so difficult for me that I don't miss them as much in these lockdowns. 

When I finally got in to see Weinstock, I gained answers to questions I'd had for 30 years. 

Apparently, I'm a "poster child" for MCAS, in his words. After blood and urine tests, as well as a comprehensive review of my medical history, I now have a definitive diagnosis of MCAS. My condition is "clinically significant," and I've been placed in a research study. MCAS is a "spectrum" disorder; we all have mast cells. They're pretty useful for snuffing out foreign invaders like bacteria and viruses. Mine just behave as if there's always a war going on, and everything that enters is the enemy.

Every one of the symptoms and conditions I've mentioned above, from IC to the food, inhalant, and contact allergies, and including a nasty bout of colic I had as a baby, fall under the MCAS umbrella. 

Lisa 2020
On a Missouri river, 2020.

And the SIBO? Yeah, I have that, too. It often accompanies MCAS and is responsible for the severe bloating I've had (so much fun when people actually think you're pregnant, but you're not). This diagnosis was confirmed through a lactulose breath test. Fortunately, there's a cure for SIBO. It meant taking the same drug used to treat E. coli, a prescription that cost me close to $700 out of pocket. Without insurance, that price tag would've been $2 grand, and that's with a hefty pharmacy discount. Hopefully, SIBO's gone for good.

I'm not happy at all to tell you that MCAS has no cure. The only thing we can do is decrease the symptoms. So I'm trying a medication that works by triggering your body's endorphins as well as supplying a few of its own. Endorphins, those feel-good hormones that give runners a high, tend to get suppressed under MCAS, which is why my reactions often hit extreme on the pain scale. Let's hope that this drug works, and the side effects are minimal.

Because lately, it's been a lot harder to sing the pain to sleep, and that lullaby is sure wearing thin.

Note: Please do not take the information presented here as a cue to self-diagnose. As described above, my diagnosis was arrived at through testing and determination by a medical doctor with a specialty in gastroenterology. It's best to consult your physician with any concerns you might have. That said, be tenacious if you aren't seeing improvement. Medical science is quickly evolving, with new discoveries and answers turning over established ideas all the time. MCAS wasn't really a thing back in the 90s when my own journey began.

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Our 'Cool Season' Annual Gardening Report Card 2021

Snap Peas on Vine
Sugar snap peas on the vine.

By Lisa Brunette

Last year we got a very late start on our vegetable gardening, so we didn't enjoy much of a cool season, outside of some arugula and a heaping supply of chervil. But this year, I was determined to plan things better. Armed with this extremely helpful vegetable planting calendar from Gateway Greening, I updated my sowing schedule, shifting everything earlier.

For those of you new to the idea, the "cool season" is the first planting season of the year, in early spring here in the Midwest, when you can sow seeds and seedlings for vegetables that like cooler temperatures. A lot of people wait until May or June and plant everything in one go, but you can make better use of your space if you stagger your plantings in successions, starting with the early cool season vegetables in March, continuing with warm season vegetables in May, and then sowing a fall crop to last through the first gleanings of winter.

Early Spring Seeds
Southern Exposure Seed Exchange is my new go-to for seeds.

The other change I made was in where I source my seeds. Last year I'd scored most of our seeds at the Missouri Botanical Garden Shop, using our 30% member discount to purchase seeds put out by Botanical Interests. I supplemented that with seeds from Seed Savers Exchange. But this year I took advantage of Gateway Greening's super-duper seed offerings, getting them for $1 and $1.50 a packet, an even better deal than I'd had with the botanical garden member discount. I also purchased more than half our seeds from Southern Exposure Seed Exchange. Because SESE operates out of Virginia, they're much more focused on plants that do well in hot, humid conditions, a better fit for our zone 6a/7 needs than Seed Savers, which is in northern Iowa, and Botanical Interests, which is more of a mass-market outlet.

What stayed the same: I still don't have an indoor location to grow seedlings that will stay warm enough, get enough sunlight, and stand up to the cat's tendency to dig in the dirt. So again, we sowed seeds directly into the ground.

Last year I graded us a C for our spring food gardening; this year, I'm upgrading us to a solid B - maybe even a B+? You decide. Let me break it down for you by harvested crop, in order of when they went into the garden.

Spring Food 21
An open-faced sammy made with herbed cottage cheese on a bed of arugula, topped with violets.

Arugula

Remarkably, we're still getting arugula from that one packet of seeds sown last spring. Remember my tarp method? I repeated it again with the fall 2020 crop and got a third harvest this year already. So by using a simple tarp, I've turned otherwise annual arugula into a kind of self-seeding perennial. It was a great food to pair with the edible violets, blooming at the same time in March and April.

Peas

The first planting in earnest this spring was peas, and I opted for two kinds, both from SESE: 'Sugar Snap Tall' snap peas and 'Green Arrow Dwarf' English shelling peas. These vining plants need support, and that's where our free supply of bamboo from a neighbor came in handy.

Pea Tripod w: Anthony
Anthony, setting up the bamboo tripod supports.

I'd never built a pea trellis before, but I know the tiny pea tendrils need a rather slender something-or-other to grab onto. So we wound the bamboo poles with twine.

Pea Trellis
Winding the twine.

This method worked, but I don't know that we'd do it that way again. It was time-consuming to build and used a LOT of twine. If you have any great ideas for low-cost pea trellises, tell us in the comments below.

In 2020, the rabbits ate the peas as soon they emerged from the ground, way too tempting a treat early in the spring when there are not as many other choices. So this time, we fenced in the peas. I scored a set of modular fence panels on clearance at Menard's; these have stakes that fit into the ground, and the fences can be easily lifted up and moved wherever you need them. They're attractive, too, with a hummingbird-and-flower motif. The chicken wire sections in the panels proved to be a perfect climbing surface for pea vines.

Pea Trellis with Fence
The trellis, surrounded by fencing to keep out rabbits. The added benefit is that the fence also acted as a vine support.

We put the peas in the ground on March 6 and harvested them in late May and for most of June. Our pea harvest was pretty phenomenal, with a high germination rate and productive vines. First we ate some of the shoots, as they can replace beef kidney pills as part of my treatment for MCAS. By the end of May, we had an excellent crop of both snap and shelling peas. They tasted better than any peas we've ever bought from a grocery store! We will definitely grow them again, probably even doubling up on the quantity. While my friend Claire over at Living Low in the Lou doesn't rate peas highly, saying they take up a lot of space for the amount of food they produce, we grew them really close together and had both high germination and yield. It's enough to put them back on our list for 2022.

Peas on Vine
An English shelling pea, ripening in the sun.
Pea Flowers
Pea flowers.
Shelling Peas
Shelling peas is a meditative and satisfying activity.

We did have one area of abject failure related to peas. I made the mistake of putting in black-eyed peas at the same time as the peas above, and none of them germinated, probably because the soil was still too cold. Later, I learned they're not a classic Southern dish for nothing; black-eyed peas (and crowder peas) like it hot and humid. Next time, we wait till May for those.

Lettuce

Whoa, lettuce! We had a bumper crop this year, with all three varieties from SESE thriving: 'Jericho' romaine, 'Bronze Arrow' loose leaf, and 'Crawford' bibb. It was actually too much lettuce for the two of us - I don't think I've ever eaten so much salad in my life - so we ended up giving away a lot to friends and family. All three varieties we sowed as seeds directly into the soil on March 13 and began harvesting in early May. We put them in right next to the peas, a good companion plant.

Lettuce Going In
A row of lettuce, next to the peas.

In case you had any doubt about this, rabbits love lettuce. So it behooved us to enclose them in the fenced area. While we enjoy the rabbit family we're fostering through wildlife conservation habitats, we do have to set boundaries. There's plenty else for them to eat without snacking on our food plants.

Teacup
We can't help it. We named this one Teacup.

But rabbits and people can coexist; it's a matter of finding out what the rabbits like to eat that isn't your food plant, giving them plenty of it, and then cordoning off your tasty veggies. Yay, modular fencing!

Peas and Lettuce
Lettuce and peas, fenced.

As the pop star Prince once sang, "Sometimes it snows in April." We had a freak snowstorm late that month, and many a leaf withered. So there is that risk in putting in the seeds as early as mid-March. But the Jericho and Bronze Arrow were virtually unfazed by this setback and indeed seemed to strengthen in response to the sudden burst of chill. 

We likely won't grow the bibb again, though. It didn't yield as much for the space it takes up, it withered the most during the cold snap, and even though it sprang back no problem, those dead leaves were still wrapped into the bibb head, making harvesting more of a challenge. The bibb also bolted; whereas, the other two lettuces did not.

Spring Veggies Sprouting 21
From left to right: Beets, carrots, lettuce, peas.

Beets and Carrots

On the other side of the lettuce, we planted rows of beets and carrots, which also need protection from rabbits. We sowed these seeds on March 20, easily moving the fence line over a space to accommodate the new row. The carrots are a variety called 'New Kuroda,' and they come from Gateway Greening. GG staff grow the carrots in their demonstration garden and save the seeds to sell to the public each year. The New Kurodas also had a high germination rate, a good yield, and are quite tasty.

Carrots
The 'New Kuroda' variety is tasty and attractive. We also eat the greens; they're great chopped up in rice.

The beets, however, haven't done well. I might have to throw in the towel, as this is my third failed attempt at beets. Or maybe I'll try a SESE variety next year; these were an inexpensive Ferry-Morse seed packet I got in the Gateway Greening super sale - called 'Tall Top Early Wonder.' The only wondering I did about them was why they didn't come in better!

Kale 21
Kale growing in a strip on the side of our house.

Kale

Kale was one of our few triumphs last year, and some of those same plants continue to produce to this day. Also on March 20 of this year, we sowed a new row along the side of our house. It took off and is still producing. This was SESE's 'Premier' kale.

Cabbage Patch Obelisk
An obelisk, in the middle of our cabbage patch, because it's too heavy to move.

Green Cabbage

We unearthed an obelisk of sorts when we dug up the bed for cabbage. It looks like the rebar and concrete foundation for some large structure - perhaps the garage that once stood in the backyard. We recently found out from a neighbor that the garage was destroyed by a fallen tree. That might explain this obelisk and definitely tells us why we're constantly digging up bricks.

We planted cabbage on March 20 as well, a busy day for the garden. It had a high germination rate, seemed to also improve from that late-April snowstorm, and has given us lovely heads of cabbage. 

Cabbage Head 21
'Early Golden Acre' green cabbage.

I read that you can cut the main head once it's grapefruit-sized, leaving the plant and its outer leaves, and more heads will form. I'm happy to report this is very much the case.

More cabbages
After cutting the main head, several more smaller ones form on the laterals.

We sowed 'Early Golden Acre' green cabbage (Ferry-Morse seeds) and harvested our first heads on June 19, with more still forming as of July 17. It's been a steady stream of cabbage dishes and sauerkraut up in here.

Sauerkraut
Anthony's been perfecting his sauerkraut recipe, and I reap the benefits.

Potatoes

On March 27, we put our seed potatoes in the ground after a round of chitting. Chitting is how you prepare them for the garden; first, you cut them into wedges, with each wedge possessing at least one eye. Then you let the cut sides heal over, which protects the seed potato from rot. Once healed over, you plant them.

Potatoes Going In
Seed potatoes going in.

We planted the potatoes on either side of a plot of horseradish, a perennial and good companion, as it's supposed to ward off potato beetle. We ordered half the amount we'd sown last year; after the 'poop potato' incident, I wanted to make sure we have this thing down before investing too heavily. I ordered two varieties from SESE: 'Keuka Gold' and 'Banana' fingerling.

Alas, our yield this year was poor. This could be from a number of factors:

  1. That snowstorm in April withered the plants. Even though they seemed to fully spring back, this might have had an effect.
  2. We didn't realize it, but there was quite a bit of rubble underneath where we'd planted the seed potatoes, from that aforementioned garage destruction. These might have inhibited their growth.
  3. We got really busy this spring running our company (Brunette Games), and we forgot to hill up around the plants.
  4. The potatoes were planted in soil that had been converted from lawn the previous year, so nematodes likely still present ate the potatoes.

This is half our harvest.

Potato harvest
At least it was enough to make a big potato salad for my family's 4th of July party.

I'm still thinking on whether or not we should shift the potatoes back to May... or even just April. Our friend Claire doesn't get started out there in her garden until May, but her location offers cooler temps and very different soil, plus she has a greenhouse where she can start seeds for transplanting; whereas, we sow seeds directly into the soil. Decisions, decisions...

I think we'll start the lettuce, peas, kale, and carrots at the same time next year, as those all worked out great. We can improve on the carrots by being more diligent about thinning them early on, but otherwise, everything was stellar. I'll do some research on beets, and I also want to find something else that can coincide with that early lettuce. It really makes you realize how dependent we are on the fossil fuel system and grocery stores for our modern ideal of the "salad." A lot of salad ingredients - tomatoes and cucumbers, for example - come in much later, when it's too hot (here, at least) for lettuce. So eating with the seasons means your salad won't feature those veggies.

Well, that wraps the 'cool season' annuals. We had great success with arugula, peas, lettuce, kale, carrots, and cabbage. Black-eyed peas, beets, and potatoes challenged us, however, so perhaps we should stay at a solid B. What do you think?

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Why You Should Bake with 'Wild Caught' Sourdough

Sourdough11
The results of a baking spree this spring: whole-wheat sourdough bread and pizza, both made with "wild-caught" yeast.

By Lisa Brunette

After a much longer hiatus than I anticipated, I'm finally back to follow up on my last post on how to create a sourdough starter. This time, I want to argue for why you should bake with homemade sourdough cultures.

First, though, let me be honest: Baking your own sourdough bread takes time, effort, and patience. This is no convenience food, nor should it be. So why bother to go to the trouble? For me, the reason is simple: homemade sourdough is the only bread I can eat without triggering both immediate mast cell reactions and long-term mast cell complications. That's a powerful motivator. But I'm not the only one who's ever struggled with bread - we seem to be in the throes of a cultural backlash against it, judging by the enduring popularity of "gluten-free" alternatives. After a lifetime of trial and error on this issue, I'm going to say that it's not actually the wheat that's the problem; it's all the bad things we add to the wheat.

Think about this: "gluten" allergies are a peculiarly contemporary phenomenon. For ten thousand years, and maybe longer, human beings have eaten wheat gluten, largely without incident, until now. Yes, there have likely always been people with legitimate celiac disease, like my uncle, who can't even eat store-bought, already-shredded cheese because a common ingredient used to keep the shreds from clumping together is some kind of flour or other wheat-gluten product. But this pervasive conviction that so many of us are "gluten intolerant"? It's pretty new and seems to have coincided with the rise of genetically modified foods, mechanized farming dependent on chemical fertilizer, pesticide use for insect and weed control, and the increased introduction of stabilizers, fillers, additives, and preservatives into our food, or even, increasingly, taking the place of our food. 

Sourdough13
A sourdough starter just beginning to bubble. This is how bread was made for most of human history.

One of the best articles written on this subject is Michael Specter's The New Yorker piece from 2014, "Against the Grain." Well-researched, long-form journalism can change your thinking, if not your life, and this one had that effect on me. A few stats from the piece:

  • About 1% of the population suffers from bonafide celiac disease (an extreme intolerance to wheat that can be reliably diagnosed by testing for a marker), and the other 99% "rarely gave gluten much thought" until the 2010s, when gluten intolerance really became a thing.
  • No other food source provides as much nourishment as wheat, and it also provides a full 20% of global calories. 
  • Gluten-free is a big business. Since The New Yorker stats are now a bit dated, here's one from this year: The gluten-free market was estimated at $22 billion in 2019 and is expected to reach $36 billion by 2026, according to Global Newswire.

According to Specter, there are two things going on with wheat that warrant investigation: 1) the incidence of diagnosed, verified celiac disease has quadrupled in the past sixty years, and 2) about 20 million people (and probably more now) do not have celiac disease but associate gluten with their health issues. Scientists do not know why celiac has increased. Nor can they explain the gluten-intolerance phenomenon.

So Specter consulted the research on gluten, and here's what he found: Studies did not conclusively show gluten to be the true trigger of symptoms. Instead, the evidence pointed to a group of foods called FODMAPs as the only real culprit in case studies. In the past seven years, more people attempting to chase down the source of their digestive issues have since shifted over to low-FODMAP diets, but such diets are harder to observe than the gluten-free, and far less popular (or trendy).

Sourdough10
A couple of beautifully active cultures.

So why do people think they feel better because they've adopt a gluten-free diet? Specter offers one possibility:

Cutting back on foods that contain gluten often helps people reduce their consumption of refined carbohydrates, bread, beer, and other highly caloric foods. When followed carefully, those restrictions help people lose weight, particularly if they substitute foods like quinoa and lentils for the starches they had been eating. 

But those who see results from a gluten-free diet are the few who've managed not to succumb to the temptations of today's gluten-free packaged food offerings. Specter makes an excellent point about such grocery-store staples: They ain't health food. I noticed years ago by reading labels that gluten-free food often contains more sugar and fat than their wheat-filled counterparts. A celiac disease specialist interviewed in the piece says, "Often, gluten-free versions of traditional wheat-based foods are actually junk food."

Side note: It's the same with vegetarianism and veganism. People often perceive themselves to feel better after going that route, likely due to some health benefits gained from an improved diet overall. But the pitfall is that a lot of meatless products - especially meat "replacements" - are laden with unhealthy components, or outright stuffed with additives and fillers. And don't get me started on vegetarians who basically load up on cheese and other dairy products to fill the void left when they take out meat, a trap I once fell into myself.

So gluten-free diets are neither scientifically proven to work, nor from a nutritional standpoint are they a good solution. But still: Celiac has increased fourfold, and people report experiencing symptoms associated with wheat products. For Specter, this meant taking a look at how exactly wheat and the products made with it have changed in modern times. He contrasts the traditional way of making bread to today's largely artificial method. For tens of thousands of years, bakers used only water, flour, and the fermentation process to create a sourdough culture, and to that, they added more flour and water, a little salt and kneading, and after baking, they had their precious loaf. Today, the standard is much less, shall we say, organic:

In place of hydration, fermentation, and kneading, manufacturers save time by relying on artificial additives and huge industrial mixers to ram together the essential proteins that form gluten.

Sourdough19
Fostering wild yeast cultures can be a highly satisfying activity.

One of the components frequently added to wheat products is vital wheat gluten. Most commercial bread available in grocery stores today - and yes, that includes your favorite ridiculously overpriced brand of organic, whole-grain, non-GMO whatever loaf, has had loads of vital wheat gluten added to it. Described by one blogger as "your normal wheat flour... on steroids," it's basically wheat with everything else removed, or only the gluten. Specter rightly questions whether the gluten-intolerance problem stems from all this extra gluten we're ingesting, the effects of which have never been properly studied.

But I want to stay with that mention of artificial additives and huge industrial mixers to expand the problem beyond just vital wheat gluten. 

As I mentioned in my post on how to create a sourdough culture, my go-to resource is Ed and Jean Wood's Classic Sourdoughs: A Home Baker's Handbook. In the introduction, the Woods hit on the crux of the problem with today's bread:

Within just the last hundred years, there have been monumental changes to what we call bread, and these changes are mostly for the worse. Not only do huge baking machines now dominate the production of bread, the baking industry adds a plethora of chemicals to flour and dough to change their physical characteristics and improve their 'machinability.' These include surface-active agents (surfactants) to help doughs go through machinery without sticking or tearing, other chemicals to soften the final bread texture or strengthen the dough by modifying the gluten, and a host of emulsifiers just to improve the mixing characteristics or increase shelf life. All of these additives have one thing in common: no, or very limited, nutritional value. At least one of them, potassium bromate, has been banned worldwide as a potential carcinogen.

In centralized industrial bakeries, large baking conglomerates produce packaged breads and refrigerated or frozen dough for distribution to retail stores and local bakeries. The distribution of industrial bread doughs means that even if a bread is baked fresh at a local bakery, it often still contains all the additives and chemicals included by the wholesale producers to grease its progress through the massive machinery - and none of the beneficial microflora that make bread taste like bread. And this is not only an American story: the deterioration of bread quality is a worldwide phenomenon, occurring in the European heartlands of great bread.

So you might ask yourself: Are you really "allergic to" or "intolerant of" wheat, or is your body trying to tell you something about all the things in your bread besides wheat? As someone who's gone gluten-free a few times in my life, I can tell you, it's probably not the answer, at least not long-term. 

Of course, if you don't want to eat wheat, don't eat wheat. If you feel better without it, by all means, avoid it. I just think you need to take a good, hard look at what you're really eating, with our without wheat in your diet, how it makes you feel, and why. And if you miss bread and want to find a way to bring it back into your life in a much more positive, nourishing way, then I say go out and capture yourself some wild yeast. Bread's not called the staff of life for nothing, you know.

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Now's the Perfect Time to Start That Sourdough

Sourdough6

By Lisa Brunette

A sourdough starter is a thing of beauty and seeming magic. All it takes is a bowl of water and flour, and you can 'catch' wild yeast from the atmosphere, claiming it as your own to use in everything from a simple loaf of bread to pancakes and pizza dough. 

If you've never done this before and are relying on commercial yeast packets for your baking projects, you don't know what you're missing. I highly encourage you to give wild sourdough a try. Not only is the flavor and texture far superior, but it's a lot healthier for you, too. As someone who suffers from Mast Cell Activation Syndrome, I can tell you that wild sourdough is pretty much the only bread I can eat without triggering symptoms. Since I love bread, creating my own sourdough has been more than worth the effort to bring bread back into my life. As it turns out, the process is also thoroughly satisfying.

Spring is a great time to start sourdough because the yeast thrives in the mildly warm temperature range of 65 to 85°F (18-29°C). Any colder, and it can be tough to capture that yeast; any hotter, and the flour/water mixture can quickly become acidic. I captured my culture last spring - over a week in late May to early June during relatively mild weather for my region at that time of year. I've nurtured it over the course of the past 12 months, baking with it, letting it go dormant, and then reactivating it to bake again for what I like to call MY YEAR IN SOURDOUGH. Now I can confidently report back to you on what works and what doesn't. This is a four-part series starting with... what else? The start.

Sourdough3

It's something of a miracle that you can stick a flour/water mixture outside and voilá! You've got yourself a sourdough starter. Of course, it's not quite that easy. There's a fair amount of babying, coaxing, feeding, waiting, babying, coaxing, feeding, and waiting some more until the magic happens. 

What didn't work for me? YouTube videos. Unfortunately, in this case, the algorithm's highest-ranking videos all tell you to do things in kind of silly ways, using methods that at best fail to rely on the collective historic wisdom of true sourdough artisans and at worst just don't work at all.

What brought success in spades? Following (and modifying) the advice laid out in Ed and Jean Wood's excellent book, Classic Sourdoughs: A Home Baker's Handbook. We inherited this book from Anthony's mother, A. Grace, when she passed in 2011, and it's just a pity I hadn't cracked it open sooner. We don't get anything in exchange for this endorsement, but here's the book if you want to check it out, with a link to where you can buy it used without involving the almighty 'Zon in the purchase.

ClassicSourdoughs

One of the best things about Classic Sourdoughs is that it doesn't present a one-size-fits-all approach but rather educates you on the nature of sourdough so you can adjust and adapt to your own environment. And that's crucial.

I live in a Midwestern river town, and even by late May, our air gets steamy, the humidity index high. But luckily, the temperature stayed under 85°F for that week or so that I successfully captured a sourdough culture. If you're in a more northern area, you might need to create a proofing box, which you can do with a standard Styrofoam cooler and socket light. This is outlined in Classic Sourdoughs, but I have not done it myself.

Another option is to capture the culture in the candle warmth of a (solar) Sun Oven set up inside, which is on my list to try as soon as we can. Cat in the Flock might receive a commission if you purchase a Sun Oven through this link, at no extra cost to you. Sun Oven is doing important work to promote solar energy and bring sun ovens to villages that dearly need them.

Sun-oven-black-homepage

But if you've got a lovely springtime range of 65-85°F (18-29°C), you should have no problem starting your culture. I strongly recommend doing this outside, as indoor air can be drier, less biodiverse, and laden with household contaminants, especially if you don't have the windows open. We tend to wait until the last minute to turn on the A/C, so our windows were open last year in late May, but I started the culture outside anyway. 

STEP 1

Ingredients:

  • 2 cups (280 g) of flour
  • 1 1/2 cups (380 ml) warm water
  • A glass bowl
  • Cheesecloth or another type of screen to cover the bowl
  • Something to use to secure the screen over the bowl

A note about flour: I've used both unbleached all-purpose white flour and whole wheat flour, as well as a mix of both. You might have to add more water for whole wheat once you get to the dough stage, something you can sense if the dough is too hard and thick instead of a nice doughy mound you can easily knead. In all cases, I prefer organic, non-GMO if I can get it.

Vigorously stir the flour and water together, introducing enough air into the mix. A sourdough starter consists of both bacteria and yeast, and they need air to thrive. Don't freak out that I said "bacteria." Some bacteria is good for you, and in this case, it's what gives the sourdough its flavor. The yeast provides texture.

STEP 2

You shouldn't cover the bowl with a lid or plastic or anything else that will prevent the organisms from finding your flour and water. If you're worried about insects getting into it, cover with cheesecloth or another fine-mesh screen. I used a splatter shield held down with a rock to keep both insects and critters out. Now, you wait...

Sourdough2

STEP 3

Give the mixture a good stirring at least twice every 24 hours. During this time I checked it occasionally, eyeing its consistency and sniffing to make sure the odor was right. If the odor heads south, that means it's been taken over by undesirable organisms, and in that case, you'll need to start over. This happened to me once; actually, what happened was I had a great start pretty much right away but didn't understand that's what I had and left it out too long, at which point it went bad.

The mixture should begin to bubble a bit after 2-3 days. At this point, add 1 cup (140 g) of flour and enough water to maintain consistency. I had to repeat these "feedings" a few times before I got a fully active culture on my second round. Let this take the time it takes, even if you go beyond the four or five days recommended in Classic Sourdoughs. As long as the culture's trending toward activity and doesn't look or smell bad, you're on the right track. A fully active culture will look spectacular and alive. To some this means "bubbly," but to others it means "foamy." Here's an example.

Sourdough4

You might experiment with different locations, too. While the photos above show my culture mix sitting on top of a garden table, because it wasn't protected from rain in that location, I eventually moved it to under our back porch, in the walk-down stairway to our basement, where it seemed to thrive, out of both rain and sun.

Once you've got a nice, active culture, you can bake with it immediately, but definitely reserve some of the original for future baking. You can also store it in the fridge to use later. I recommend labeling it as sourdough starter and including the date. This is now your start, your buddy, your friend; it will stick with you through life if you keep feeding it. The Woods recommend doing this every couple of months even if you're not baking, and I concur. I had two starts, one of which I baked with every two months. It's still my winner. The other one went four months' dormant in the fridge, and I opened it this spring to find it had gone bad: black fuzz and a terrible smell. I had to pitch it.

But the good one! Oh, the things I've baked... I'll tell you all about it in a future post.

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'The Most Food for the Time and Space' - Q&A with Living Low in the Lou's Claire Schosser

Claire in Garden 2
Claire Schosser, in her one-acre suburban homestead.

By Lisa Brunette

Part 3 of a 3-Part Series

Claire Schosser writes Living Low in the Lou, a blog chronicling her and her husband Mike's journey of reduced energy consumption and self-sufficiency. She opted for early retirement back in the mid-1990s (with Mike following in 2001) by reducing their expenses through living simply, growing much of their own food, and forgoing many of the shiny new conveniences that the rest of us take as givens. For those outside the area, "the Lou" is a popular nickname for St. Louis, Missouri. The Schosser/Gaillard homestead is located on a one-acre plot in suburban St. Louis and includes many mature, productive nut and fruit trees, an extensive annual garden, an herb garden, and a glassed-in front porch that functions as a greenhouse.

Claire and I discussed their lifestyle and garden over the course of two in-person visits and many back-and-forth email conversations between spring 2020 and spring 2021. This three-part Q&A series covers the topics voluntary simplicity, suburban homesteading, and getting the most food for the time and space in your garden.

LB: You mention a few times on your blog that May is your month of heaviest gardening activity, and in your recent email to me, you said you aren't really gardening much right now. I just spent the past two weekends putting in early-season peas and lettuce, along with arugula, chervil, and nasturtiums. Is your emphasis on May just a reflection of the types of crops you like to grow? I noticed dent corn is high on your list. Do you grow peas and other early-season crops at all? 

CS: Its partly a reflection of the crops that Mike and I like to eat and partly a reflection of the crops that yield the most food for the time and space that they require. Take peas, for instance. Both Mike and I like them, so I have grown them in the past. But for the amount of space that they need, even a good crop doesnt produce much food. Id rather spend the time and space on crops that yield a lot of food in late spring and early summer, for instance bok choy and cabbage. Even lettuce yields more food than peas do.

Its also due to the microclimate at my place being several degrees cooler than at your place. Ive lost enough seedlings to late freezes in April that I now avoid planting anything except potatoes before the middle of April, when the freeze risk lessens. 

Orchard
Claire and Mike's one-acre plot includes productive fruit and nut trees, in addition to the active annual fruit and vegetable garden.

 I grow dent corn because it provides a lot of calories compared to the vegetables, it grows well here, I have enough space to grow it and save seeds, and its the easiest grain to work with at the homestead level. By February or March, almost all the fresh food from the previous season is gone, but we still have dent corn available to make corn mush or cornbread if something like a natural disaster or pandemic were to make other sources of food scarce or expensive.

I harvest a few early perennial edibles starting in mid to late March: Profusion’ sorrel, a rocambole garlic that the previous owners left for us, garlic chives, mint leaves, and some wild plants like dandelion greens and violet flowers that grow in various parts of the yard. The strawberry harvest occurs in May; last year I harvested nearly 40 pounds of them from a single 100 square foot bed! Otherwise, my harvest season doesnt take off until June. But once it gets going it doesnt end until November or December.

Strawberry Patch
Claire's big, productive strawberry patch.
Strawberry Flowers
Strawberry flowers.

LB: Oh, good... I'm starting some sorrel this year and am glad to hear it can work in this area. I can definitely see what you mean about peas. For me they are a cheaper way to get a DAO facilitator into my diet, necessary to combat a condition I have called Mast Cell Activation Syndrome. The two food sources for DAO are pea shoots and beef kidney. Since I don't like the taste of kidney, I have to resort to (pricey) kidney pills. Pea shoots are a great substitute. By the way, don't you love our native violets? It amazes me that people treat them as weeds, pulling them out to make room for more grass. Besides their edibility, they are a host plant for fritillary butterflies. I also use the leaves in a tea with rose petals to combat heart palpitations. You're killing me with the strawberry story, though. Anthony can't eat them due to the oxalates (kidney stones), and they are unfortunately a Mast Cell trigger for me.

Question for you: What is the last thing you harvest in December? And could you briefly describe your food storage system?

CS: The last things I harvest are leeks, carrots, sorrel, and members of the cabbage family. Although I think it best to harvest the turnip, beet, and radish roots earlier, before temperatures drop below about 20°F, the varieties of kale and arugula that I grow will live through temperatures approaching 10°F. They and the sorrel are the last leaves that I harvest in December. I harvest leeks and carrots before the soil freezes, not because it would kill them, but because I can’t dig them out of frozen soil. 

If your seed-grown sorrel doesn’t produce much before it flowers and goes to seed – mine didn’t – I recommend ‘Profusion’ sorrel. It doesn’t go to seed so it grows new leaves for months!

Profusion Sorrel
'Profusion' sorrel.

I’m not fond of canning during summer’s heat, and Mike hasn’t shown an inclination to do it, so we focus on storing crops we can freeze; store whole in the basement, a makeshift cold cellar, or in the living room with us; or process by fermentation or making into wine. We only have one refrigerator and it’s rather small, so we don’t store many garden crops in it, only apples that we don’t turn into wine.

Cold Cellar
Entrance to the cold cellar.
Cold Cellar Interior
Inside the cold cellar, empty now at the start of the new season.

LB: We met via a mutual interest in the writings of John Michael Greer. Have you read Green Wizardry, and has it been an influence for you? How else has Greer's writings inspired you?

Yes, Ive read Green Wizardry, and I call myself a green wizard. Mike and I had already done some of the things that Greer writes about as part of our voluntary simplicity practice, and we are adding others as time goes on. We practice a Retrofit lifestyle, with a little Down Home Funk mixed in (who else do you know who has at least 25 slide rules – Ive lost count – sharing the house with them?). 

Before I read Greers first blog, The Archdruid Report, the only thing I knew about Druids was the Druid character class in the role-playing game Dungeons and Dragons. Fast forward four years after I began reading his blog, and I had joined the Ancient Order of Druids in America, the Druid order for which he was the Grand Archdruid from 2003 through 2015. Fast forward another eight years to now, and I am the Archdruid of Water for the same order. I owe Greer a major debt of gratitude for his work to revive the Order, which has become my spiritual home, as well as for his work on green wizardry and related subjects.

LB: What does it mean to be an Archdruid of Water? Can you explain what this spiritual practice is all about? And how does it dovetail with being a 'green wizard'?

CS: The Druidry that members of AODA and other Druids groups practice is a form of nature spirituality. The only thing that holds for all of us in AODA is that we all have a sense that nature is sacred in some way: that nature itself has a spiritual significance and has spiritual lessons to teach us. AODA is non-dogmatic; its members hold a wide array of beliefs, so we focus on practice.

The four Archdruids of AODA function as the board of directors of AODA. More importantly, because we are a teaching Order, the Archdruids establish, maintain, and as needed revise our educational curriculum, which is designed so that each member can make each of AODA’s seven core practices and values a part of their everyday life.

One of our seven core practices and values is nature reciprocation. Nature reciprocation means living in balance and harmony with nature. To do this we incorporate lifestyle changes that reduce our negative impact on the Earth and her cycles, and we also learn how to work with the Earth to increase her richness. This is a perfect fit with green wizard practices, which seek to do the same things.

Barn Shed
Barn shed and bamboo poles, grown onsite.

LB: Living Low in the Lou is definitely the writing of someone with a deeply scientific bent. What's your background? How has science and the scientific method shaped your gardening, as well as other aspects of your carefully chosen lifestyle?

CS: Ive been interested in nature and science from as far back as I remember. In my late teens and twenties, I focused my college and graduate studies on chemistry, which drilled the scientific method into me and showed me how to use it to solve problems.

In my blog I describe the scientific method as a conversation between me and the garden. Each year, based on the results I obtained from previous years and my research on how to become a better gardener, I form questions (hypotheses) for the garden to answer. With the questions in mind, I decide what I can do to help the garden answer those questions (experiments). As I observe the plants in the garden and measure the weight of each days harvest, the garden is answering my questions and teaching me how to garden. 

In the same way, when Mike and I were learning how to live more simply by using the nine-step YMOYL program, every month we had a conversation with our categorized income and expenses about whether they were fulfilling and in line with our values. Based on the answers, we made changes in what we spent our money and time on. Then we asked the questions again the following month and made more changes. Like the garden example, its a process of asking questions and determining what action to take depending on the answers. The process taught us how to live in a way that allows us to pursue our interests and express our values. 

Mint
Claire grows 'mojito' mint for the both culinary and medicinal use.

LB: That's fantastic; I love it. Can you give some examples of expenses you realized were in conflict with your values? And others that were in harmony?

CS: Payments for utilities were among those that conflicted with our values. Noticing this resulted in our beginning to change the way we live to use less electricity, natural gas, and water. 

We also realized that the mortgage payment conflicted with our desire to retire early. In 1996 we paid the remainder of our mortgage debt. Since then we’ve lived debt-free.

I enjoy spending money on books and on plants and seeds. Mike finds fulfillment in spending money on musical instruments and on his motorcycle. Both of us enjoy contributing to organizations whose work we value.

LB: Claire, thanks so much for taking the time for our wonderful conversation. It's been a real privilege and pleasure!

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Meet Chaco, the 'Indoor Only' Suburban Farm Cat

Chaco_Feet

By Lisa Brunette

I've had the privilege of sharing my home with a total of four dogs and four cats over the course of my life (though only as many as 3 pets at one time, and those were all cats). Of the lot, Chaco is definitely the most entertaining. As the lot includes a poodle who had the odd habit of 'hanging' his turds on plants instead of depositing them on the ground like a normal pet, that's saying a lot.

Chaco's a special breed called a Devon rex, and they're famously described as "monkeys in cat suits." The breed has an above-average climbing drive. This is evidenced in Chaco's need to get to the highest point in any room, consequences be damned. His only health issue is a torn ACL. The vet said we should probably scale back on his Olympic skiing events.

Chaco_Tree

A cat like this deserves to be spoiled a bit, with faux 'trees' he can climb on, of course. As he had the crazy luck to get adopted by a couple of middle-aged empty nesters, it probably won't surprise you to learn that he eats an only-raw food diet, has a an arsenal of colorful cat toys, and sleeps the day away on a heating pad.

Don't judge us too harshly on that last one, though - his breed lacks a guard coat, so he's covered only in short little corkscrew curls of fine down. He gets mighty cold, easily. It's my duty several times a winter's day to rub his ears between my thumbs and fingers to warm them. He also likes to set his cold toe beans on my neck till they toast up again. He's happiest when he's tucked inside our clothing with us.

Chaco_Vest

The short, curly hair is one of his attributes, though: He's as close to hypoallergenic as you can get in a cat. Which makes him the only cat that doesn't trigger an endless slew of mast cell reactions in me. I'm greatly thankful for this, especially because he's the most affectionate, cuddliest cat I've ever met. 

If you come over to our house, you're likely to get a 'kiss' from Chaco, as his breeder taught him to stick his face right up into yours for a smooch, and we haven't been able to break him of the habit. (Not that we've tried that hard.) He sleeps with us, of course; and he really likes the cleft of my neck between head and shoulder. If that's not available, he plops right down on my head. On more than one occasion I've felt something wet... trickling down my chin... yep. Cat drool.

Chaco_Paw

When we first got Chaco, I hadn't yet figured out what was causing my health problems, and we tried to keep him out of the bedroom in an attempt to ensure a symptom-free night's rest, just in case I did react to him. But when I was staying in an Airbnb during our lengthy wait to move into our current home, Chaco was able to push the double doors open to my bedroom, and there was no keeping him out. He took to it as if to say, There. As it should be.

Speaking of pushing open doors, he can pull them open as well. This is of course not a great trait to have in a cat, especially if you don't want your trash all over the kitchen. 

With his big eyes and ears, he has a bit of an alien look that I find simultaneously adorable and comical. He's especially goofy during play, and one of these days I promise I'll capture on camera one of his totally wacked-out 'gonna git you' poses. For now, though, you can admire him in this hat.

CatintheHat

He's indoor-only because the Devon rex breed is a miniature one, putting him at about a half or even one-third the size of a regular household domestic cat. As much as he likes to think so as he gazes out at the squirrels and rabbits and birds just beyond the window, he wouldn't be able to tough it out there on his own for very long. I mean, besides that torn ACL, he's just a lovable goof with delusions of predatory glory. He wouldn't be good for the birds anyway; a surprisingly sad number of them succumb to house cats as it is, so we don't want Chaco contributing to the problem.

Until we can erect a 'catio,' or somesuch, Chaco must enjoy the outdoors from the safety of his home. Yeah, you should hear him bemoaning the injustice of the situation if we're outside and the windows are open.

Chaco_Window

For such a small guy, he can really strike a commanding presence. Sometimes, when running the day job business plus this blog feels like a lot, I can just pretend that Chaco's the boss. 

Chaco_Boss

Chaco_Boss2

He can often make it hard to work anyway. This is a pretty common thing I've seen in other cats, the drive to distract you while you're working on something important at the computer, but Chaco's definitely the hammiest. It's like he knows exactly how to get me to laugh.

Chaco_ScreenPeek

When we adopted Chaco in 2016, it was with the express purpose of giving my stepson, Zander, the experience of living with a pet, something that was new to him. I totally believed Chaco was for Zander. But then Zander went off to college, and Anthony and I realized Chaco filled a huge empty nest for us.

There was never any question when we made the decision to move to Missouri from Washington state that Chaco would be included in that plan, even though it meant moving him via air flight... and it also meant towing my cat and all his supplies with me through a string of Airbnbs while Anthony readied our house to sell.

Chaco_StLouis

But having Chaco with us was more than worth all that. I hope this doesn't offend you, but I've often preferred the company of my pets to people, and Chaco is no exception. He's very much a part of the fabric of our lives here at the 'farmhouse,' even if he does make it impossible to start seeds indoors (he digs them up) or dry herbs on screens (he treats this as his personal resting spot). 

Chaco_Herbs

He participates in our backyard foraging by munching on the yummy wild garlic we bring inside.

Chaco_Greens

He even watches TV with us in the evenings, though he reacts a bit differently to some of the documentaries than we do.

Chaco_Bird

We're sure he thinks of us as lumbering, somewhat awkward colony mates, whose strange insistence on sleeping at night and remaining active all day must be tolerated. We try to give him the best life we can, because he puts a smile on our faces every day, giving us that warm, cuddly, interspecies connection.

We all agree that some days, the exact right thing to do is curl up in a blanket and let everything else go.

Chaco_Blanket

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