Tuesday, June 21, 2011

The Lately Game

What I've been reading: I finally finished Special Topics in Calamity Physics last week. Although, after 500 pages, I had become marginally attached to the implausible characters, I'm glad that "chapter" in my life is over. Now I'm reading A Pale View of Hills, by Kazuo Ishiguro, which is the perfect antidote: utterly clean, spare, with Ishiguro's trademark perfect pacing and sense of foreboding. With STICP, I wanted to know what was going to happen, but in a cheap way, like when you get sucked into a bad TV show. APVOH is suspenseful in a more intellectual way. Either way I realize I'm being manipulated by plot lines, but I appreciate the more subtle form of seduction.

What I've been watching: The Voice (on Hulu, not live, no spoilers). Last night I watched All About Eve. This weekend, I was hanging out with a group who all wanted to see some nouveau horror flick at the Brattle, and I don't really do horror, indie or no, so I went and saw The Art of Getting By instead. This was interesting: it's a teen movie, not a comedy but a straight romance, and clearly marketed to hipster types. It was like, sponsored by Urban Outfitters. It's predictable on every possible level (there's even a scene where you know, from the beginning, that the protagonist is going to vomit on somebody's shoes before it's over; turns out it's his own shoes), but I still kind of liked it. Who doesn't like watching pretty people walk around New York?

What I've been eating: Not much. I finally bit the bullet and admitted to myself that I've developed a variable intolerance to nightshades. I figured out a while ago that eggplant was a no-go, but that was no major tragedy. I like eggplant, but it was hardly a staple of my diet. Much, much harder was admitting that tomatoes are problematic, particularly in condensed form, as in sundried tomatoes or a thick sauce (the latter being their most delicious incarnation). See also potatoes, again to varying degrees. See also peppers, all forms.

I've felt sick many times after eating, say, lasagna or enchiladas, but convinced myself that gluten must have gotten in there somehow. But in my heart I knew there wasn't any, because I made them myself. In fact I think gluten is just a subset of the things that make me sick. I was carrying around a list of problematic foods in my head, and I believed they were all unrelated. (What does gluten have to do with eggplant or tofu or sundried tomatoes?) Then at some point I ran across a list of foods that contain high amounts of lectin, and there were all those seemingly unrelated foods: all grains, not just gluten grains (I gave up on oats, quinoa, sorghum, etc. months ago); nightshades (eggplant, potatoes, peppers, and tomatoes); and legumes, especially soybeans. Tofu has been on my shit list for a long time too, taking all fake meat off the table. (Quorn is made from a fungus, but almost all the Quorn products contain some gluten too.)

The other night, I had a reaction from eating peanut sauce (peanuts are a legume); this has forced me to contend with the lectin theory. Now, I seem to more or less tolerate some of the items on the lectin list, but if I suck it up and stop basing meals around nightshades, that wipes out most of my favorite vegetarian meals (i.e., anything with tomato sauce, and most Mexican food: enchilada sauce, whether red or green, is pretty much lectin city). So I'm trying to figure out if it's even worth trying to further restrict my diet, to see if that gets me 100% back to normal, as in feeling as good as I did before the onset of gluten intolerance. Cutting out gluten got me 80-85% of the way there, but I've never been able to figure out what was causing the remaining 15% of the trouble, if not simple cross-contamination.

Anyway, in an effort to at least cut back on the nightshades (and eat something other than gummi candy), I've been eating non-vegetarian meals, such as a variation on this kimchi fried rice (with more vegetables and the eggs scrambled in), seared tuna steaks with chimichurri sauce (I had been craving tuna steaks forever but held off until they fell under $20 a pound, which happened on Father's Day), and sushi salad, which I made up. Recipe below. All ingredient amounts are approximate/to taste.
Sushi Salad
Sushi rice, cooked and cooled
Smoked salmon
Asparagus, cooked and cooled
Pickled ginger
Nori (toasted seaweed)
Cilantro (optional)
Rice vinegar
Soy sauce
Salt & pepper

Chop or tear everything into bite-size pieces and throw in a big bowl with the rice. Make a vinaigrette with rice vinegar, salt, pepper, a good dash of sugar (the rice in sushi is slightly sweet), a small splash of soy (you don't want to turn the whole dish brown) and oil. I used olive because that's the only kind of oil we had around, but use peanut oil or something if you're a purist. Toss the vinaigrette with the other ingredients. Voila, it's Nippon in a bowl.
B.T. Dubbs, so far I have no problems with soy sauce, provided it's the wheat-free kind, probably because it's fermented and consumed in small quantities.


  1. Convincing yourself that there's gluten in a meal you made yourself has to be the saddest thing I've heard all day. Willfull denial, etc. I'm sorry for your tomato and potato loss.

  2. I was exhausted after two chapters of Calamity Physics—not the good complex-thought kind of exhausted, but the get-on-with-it-already exhausted. The sentences are sort of faux-Victorian. I don't know how people write those kind of sentences thinking they sound good.

    So I went back to Paul Auster's Sunset Park, which I also thought is a great antidote—very plain and earnest. It might even be too plain and earnest for some people, but it's very moving for me so far. (I was surprised to find that a tangential part of the story involves the circumstances of the death and funeral of a character based on Emma Bee Bernstein.) I'm finding that my favorite books (fiction-wise) are usually the plain and serious kind, rather than the allegedly "funny" books the kids seem to like these days.

  3. Haven't been able to eat tomatoes either in some time (also: beets, tapioca in all forms, citrus, peanuts and pistachios, tea, casein - damn - and a bunch of other stuff) though I can still eat potatoes no problem. It is hard to be gluten-free and not eat tomato sauces/products, I think, so many of the recipes are tomato-sauce-based. Same problem with peppers as well. Just willing myself into a pretty boring but problem-avoiding diet has made an amazing difference in how I feel health-wise, though, so the sacrifice is worth it! (Constant stomach aches are a thing of the past, for instance.) I'm still trying to find comfort foods and snacks - two of my hardest categories to replace sans wheat.
    Three veggies that never fail to please and are actually good to the digestive system: fennel bulb, asparagus, and avocado.

  4. Thanks for the condolences Christen. A little tomato, especially if it's raw, seems to be OK, but cooked tomatoes are my FAVORITE FOOD. Argh.

    Matt, I probably only stuck with STICP because I read the first 100 pages on a plane.

    Jeannine, I read somewhere recently that beets are a problem for some people with various digestive issues. Citrus and tea? Wow, that sucks. I've always been allergic to pistachios -- they make my mouth itch like crazy.

  5. I grew up in the '60s and '70s and I can't recall any of my contemporaries having any kind of food allergies with the exception of a shellfish intolerance (crustaceans only, bivalves were okay) that was passed down through the male lineage in my family for generations. Now there are "peanut free" zones in my kids' schools and even one class where students are forbidden to consume legumes before school because one kid ate a Snickers and her face swelled up so much that she looked like one of the Powerpuff Girls and had to be rushed to the hospital.

    So what happened from one generation to the next? More processed foods? More antibiotics and pesticides used in agriculture? Overall, a more sterile environment? When I was a kid, I would play outside for hours a day and was constantly exposed to nature (e.g, dirt, plants, and insects) and would bathe on Saturday's only. Antibacterial soap was the stuff of science fiction back then.

    Sadly, children who grew up in the '80s and later were over-coddled and spent the majority of their free time indoors thanks to cable TV, computer-based amusements, the lack of a stay-at-home parent, and fear of sexual predators (who existed during my childhood but, for some reason, were not such a big deal). The only hope for kids today may be to throw them out into the wild and let them fend for themselves.

    I found this interesting article on the CNN website that supports the cleanliness link to food allergies:

    A study in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences compared the gut bacteria from 15 children in Florence, Italy, with gut bacteria in 14 children in a rural African village in Burkina Faso. They found that the variety of flora in these two groups was substantially different.

    The children in the African village live in a community that produces its own food. The study authors say this is closer to how humans ate 10,000 years ago. Their diet is mostly vegetarian. By contrast, the local diet of European children contains more sugar, animal fat and calorie-dense foods. The study authors posit that these factors result in less biodiversity in the organisms found inside the gut of European children.

    The decrease in richness of gut bacteria in Westerners may have something to do with the rise in allergies in industrialized countries, said Dr. Paolo Lionetti of the department of pediatrics at Meyer Children Hospital at the University of Florence. Sanitation measures and vaccines in the West may have controlled infectious disease, but they decreased exposure to a variety of bacteria may have opened the door to these other ailments.

    "In a place where you can die [from] infectious diseases, but you don't get allergy, obesity, asthma, inflammatory bowel disease, autoimmune disease, the flora is different," Lionetti said.

    This study only looked at a small number of children, but the findings support the widespread notion of the "hygiene hypothesis" -- the idea that cases of allergies are increasing in number and severity because children grow up in environments that are simply too clean.

    "That our immune system is skewed away from fighting infections, and toward fighting things that it's not supposed to be fighting, like things in the environment or foods -- that's one thing that people think may be in play," Rudders said.

  6. I think the hygiene hypothesis is pretty compelling. Another piece of evidence is that women are more susceptible to auto-immune disorders, probably because they're kept even cleaner and "safer" as children.

  7. So when bullies made me eat dirt as a kid, they were unwittingly doing me a favor.

  8. My mom tells me I enjoyed eating moldy bread as a kid. Must be why I rarely get sick now. I also played outside plenty...in the 80s!

  9. I just spoke to a doctor who blames genetic engineering for a lot of our good allergies. Africa and Europe have different allergies than we do; their crops also have different DNA. For instance, our genetically engineered wheat has three times as much gluten as British-grown wheat. That explains maybe corn, wheat, soy, and other heavily-engineered crop allergies. However, it doesn't explain nut allergies, which as far as I know, haven't really been messed around with all that much. I have a theory that peanuts became ubiquitous in America only in the past two generations and people just built up an intolerance to a food that wasn't really in their genetic heritage in the first place?

  10. I have heard that about wheat.

    Some people believe we shouldn't be eating grains at all, because we didn't evolve to digest them, and that when they were introduced into our diet they were usually soaked, sprouted and/or fermented to make them easier to digest.

    There's also the theory (which Michael Pollan espouses) that we rely way too much on nuts and seeds and legumes (including soy and corn and oils derived therefrom) and that's why our diets are overstuffed with omega 6's, blowing the omega 3 to 6 ratio.

  11. I tend to suspect that the increase in allergies (both the increased occurrence of them, and the increasing variety of foods and other substances that some people react to as allergens), as well as the increase in various autoimmune disorders, is due to a cluster of causes, rather than a single central culprit. Though the specific causes may vary from one person to another, and one population to another, depending on all sorts of factors.

    Over-cleanliness is, I suspect one cause; also increased levels of pesticides in foods; also genetic engineering of foods; also antibiotics and growth hormones fed to livestock and poultry; and increased processed sugar in foods; and general environmental pollution of all sorts; these among other things.

    All of the above surely have the potential to mess up human immune systems: either suppressing the body's ability to fight disease and unwanted substances: or causing the immune system to go crazy and attack substances substances it shouldn't, or attack one's own body.