What Might be Eating Me

When we were asked to come to Papua New Guinea, one of my first concerns was “what is the diet?”  I have celiac disease, and I didn’t want to come into the country and have to refuse everything my hosts presented in good hospitality.  I already dealt with that often enough in the U.S.  To not be able to eat the food offered, feels separating, not joining – which is what feasting together is supposed to be.

I was very relieved to find out that the traditional feast was pork and sweet potatoes (kau kau), and daily food was often vegetables and kumu (greens).   That would be easy.

It wasn’t exactly as easy as I thought.  Junk food has infiltrated.  People here like scones (really, rolls), and often cook their vegetables in Maggi cubes (a boullion mix that has dairy, as well as a ton of preservatives).  They will put ramen noodles in with the kumu, too.

Still, it hasn’t been terrible.  I’ve been able to avoid many of these things without a problem.  However, after a couple of months here, my legs started to itch.  They had bumps which looked somewhat like flea bites.  I figured that’s what they were.  But they seemed to appear overnight, and Jeff didn’t have any bites. This went on week after week and got worse.  My rosacea got worse as well.

After we went to Lae last December, we were sidelined at the New Tribes mission at Lapilo for a couple of weeks.  I started showing symptoms of a urinary tract infection.  As quickly as those go up to my kidneys, I made sure to get into the clinic.  The doctor looked at my butterfly rash on my face, asked me some more questions and then asked if I’d ever been tested for lupus.  The test had to go to Australia, and he figured that I might find a place closer to have the blood taken.  He did do a SED rate, which showed that I had a high rate of inflammation going on.  He put me on Cipro for the symptoms but the itching got worse, so I went back to Keflex (which isn’t the best choice, but Cipro is super-strong and can mess up a lot of other things besides bacteria).

We ended up going back to Lapilo for the test.  They were the only one who could send the blood samples to Australia.  The doctor put me on 50 mg. of Prednisone for a week, to arrest the symptoms, but when I tried to go down, according to his instructions, my symptoms got worse, and my joints ached terribly.  It would have to be slower.  The tests came back negative, but the doctor wasn’t convinced.  The samples could not be kept refrigerated all the way to Australia, so he was worried it was a false negative and sent me home.

On the plane, the itching stopped.  The fatigue and the joint pain took a while.  And they returned every time I went down a few milligrams on the Prednisone.  The tests were negative again.  My Functional Medicine rheumatologist also put me on a regimen to treat for leaky gut, tested for wheat cross-reactivity, and kept an eye on me.  I was staying with my inlaws, which was great. It was peaceful, but it was difficult to cook in another person’s kitchen day in and day out.  So Maggie and I started eating out a lot.  We lived at In-n-Out (lettuce wraps) and Chipotle.  And I started feeling A LOT better.  I really didn’t attribute it to the diet, because when I did cook, the food was incredibly healthy – grass fed and pastured meat, organic fruits and vegetables.

My SED rates dropped down when I stayed at Concordia Irvine for a month, leaving us to think that it was probably simply being exposed to wheat.  I felt good.  Really good.  And there had to have been some gut healing, because the one time I got glutened, I didn’t even react.

A week back in PNG, and I was itching again.  My joints ached.  I wasn’t having the tea that we thought had wheat glue in the tea bags.  No idea what could be causing it.  It was after I had bacon, so I had bacon again…nothing.  It was after I had eggs, so we tried eggs again, nothing.  But the next time, yeah.  But the time after that, nope.  It was like that with everything.  Mostly, we were eating stews – lamb meat, onions, garlic, carrots, sweet potato, potato, and squash.  Nothing really allergenic in any of those things, and again, it didn’t seem to happen every time.

We went to Australia, where again, we were eating out, or cooking smaller amounts of food at a time.  All the symptoms disappeared.  Except – when I cut up a squash, my hands burned.  The squash.  I checked out squash allergy, and while it is rare, the symptoms were pretty right on.   For the rest of the time in Brisbane, I felt pretty good, except the time I had risotto with eggplant.    But even when I got glutened, I felt pretty good.

Now we are back in PNG, and while things are a lot better, the bumps, itching, joint pain, are back.  I was reading about FODMAPS (a type of food sensitivity that includes a lot of foods, including gluten), and the article mentioned “low histamine tolerance.”  I clicked on the link.

Histamine is contained in many foods – especially tropical fruits (!), berries (!), tomatoes (!), and while meats do not have them when they are killed, they start building immediately, even in the refrigerator or when canned.  Bone broth is high in histamines (!)  Tomatoes (!), anything fermented like soy sauce (!), wine/beer(!), vinegar, sauerkraut (!), kombucha (!) and tea (!!!) sauces such as tomato based sauces and curries(!), pork – including bacon (!), egg whites (!), teas (!), and sodas (!).  Most vegetables don’t have histamine, but spinach, eggplant (!), and pumpkin/winter squash(!) do.

Just having one thing with histamine in them may not cause a problem, but several things together might, depending on the tolerance level.  Histamine levels might already be high during seasonal allergies, and so a reaction might be easier when that is already going on.

The symptoms are itchy skin and rashes, hives, diarrhea/cramping, headaches, joint pain, rosacea-flushing- acne, anxiety/panic, and foggy thinking.  Unlike allergies, they don’t necessarily start up immediately after exposure, but the histamines build up in your system, and a reaction might happen hours later.  This is a decent summary of everything I’ve read, with a link to an even better one:  “Headaches, Hives, and Heartburn:  Could Histamine be the Cause?”  

When I was in the U.S. and eating out all the time, I was having none of these things, except tea.  When I was in Australia, I was having very little of these things, except tea.  But in Papua New Guinea, we had a lot of tropical fruits, and because of our power situation, we would make big pots of stew that would stay out on the stove (why put it in the fridge when the fridge didn’t have enough power to cool it down?).  We would reheat it thoroughly, but it would be building up histamines all the same, probably a LOT of histamines.

It does seem to be the case. I’ve now made myself react a couple of times.  And two day old stew does make me react much more strongly than the first night.

It’s another one of those syndromes that many doctors don’t have enough proof that it exists, though documentation is building, especially under the term Mast Cell Activation Syndrome (MCAS)

This makes it difficult.  I don’t even know HOW to start eating differently here.  All of those exclamation points are foods that we eat.  There really is very little that we don’t.  Not sure what to do.

Winner, Winner, Chicken Dinner

I’m not a farmer, I’m a city girl, so it is an interesting experience to me to eat something that I just saw walking around.

On Saturday, the women of our Bible Study brought us food.  They brought things from their gardens – potatoes, kau kau (sweet potato), pumpkin, onion, and cabbage.  Nancy also mentioned, when she told me this would be happening, that they would bring a chicken.  When someone comes back from the hospital, especially after they have surgery, it is traditional to kill a pig, to help the person get their blood back.  They didn’t have a pig, so she said they were bringing chicken.  She said it would happen in the afternoon.

Five o’clock passed, so I had the feeling that they were cooking whatever they were bringing.  I couldn’t have been more wrong.  The ladies came at 6:15 or so – just after the six o’clock screechy bugs sang, with a bag of vegetables – and a chicken.  A very active chicken.  She was quite handsome, and as the ladies sat down around our porch, the chicken moseyed around.

I offered everyone coffee, and they nodded.  But Jeff mentioned that we had Pepsi – and they all exclaimed “Yes, Pepsi!”

There is a story behind that:

When I was away in The States, Jeff continued to host Bible Study, and he would make coffee.  Jeff has no clue how to make coffee.  Nancy told him later that it was bad, but nothing goes to waste here.  One of the meris whispered to another meri “If you drink my coffee, I will give you buai.”  The other meri agreed.  But as soon as she finished “That was terrible.  I am going to need that buai.”

We all sat around a bit, chatting a little, but Papua New Guinea is not a huge culture for small talk, and it is not one of my gifts either.  After a bit, Nancy said “Lora, we will go home now,” and with that, I thanked them again and thanked them for coming to my home, and they smiled, nodded, and most of them were gone.

Before she left, Nancy coerced the chicken into a vegetable sack and then hung it on my pantry door.  “It will be all right there until tomorrow.”  I was shocked.  Really, it wouldn’t try to get out at all?  So I mentioned that we could put it in the shed.  We went into the shed and Nancy put the chicken into the wheel barrow.  “It will stay in there.”

You don’t want to feed a chicken before you kill it, if you can avoid it.  According to Nancy, per our last chicken gift, it makes it a cleaner job.   Nancy was going to come back the next day, but family in Irelya was sick, so chicken got a reprieve until Monday.  I was working, and didn’t know she had even gone out and killed it, but then she was sitting on my kitchen floor, picking the final feathers off.  The chicken now looked how chickens look when get them from the freezer section at Krogers.

It is different eating something that had been alive that day.  It isn’t “this chicken tastes good,” but the brain goes right to “she tastes good.”  It isn’t some meat in a package, but a real, actual animal, an animal that pooped on my porch and for a short time, her well-being had been my responsibility.

This isn’t anything that would turn me into a vegetarian, but it definitely makes me more determined to get as much out of her as I can.  Generally, I am good at that when it comes to chickens.  She made a good meal.  She will also make good sandwiches for my kids.  And she will also make a very good bone broth that will help us continue to be healthy.  That’s why they gave her to us in the first place.

Tea is Just Different

The most surprising thing for me during my time in Australia is that I have developed a real appreciation for tea; most surprising because I thought I already liked tea — a lot.   When I lived in the U.S., it was pretty rare that I didn’t have a cup of iced tea in my hand as I went through my day, just as many of my friends went through their day with a Starbucks in their hands.  I went to tea stores.  I sought out good tea.

“Going through the day,” is the point.  In the US, we’ve become a culture that brings our food with us.   I’m probably even more guilty of that than most people.  If I can’t really have actual fun making my meal, then I might as well just pay someone to make something I can consume without thinking — that way, someone else has to clean up, and I can go about my business. C:UsersLoraDownloads7847504684_61c8762524_o.jpg

Tea is countercultural.  Tea — loose leaf, in a pot, possibly with milk and sugar — requires a person to pause.  Instead of a drink on the way, tea, properly done becomes an interlude.  Instead of dragging it along for the ride, I have to sit down and enjoy it.  It doesn’t allow multitasking.  Even when I am reading or writing while having tea, I have to stop what I am doing to prepare it and I have to pause while I take a drink.  With coffee or iced tea, my eyes rarely leave what I am doing.  And there is something pleasant about knowing that when that first cup is done, the process starts all over again — that second cup is a mere gentle nudge that the end is approaching. No matter what, tea slows down time.  (photo credit: Ben Babcock)

Tea is a culinary experience.  Because attention is needed and because tea is more gentle to the palate, the food that goes along with tea is more sophisticated and complex.    Starbucks has improved their pastries and other food over the past couple of years, but they don’t compare to the scones, tarts, cakes, sandwiches, and quiches that go along with tea.  Here, there really is no practice of Tea Time like the British have but it does still somehow seem natural to have a break in the afternoon. Tea and a trifle seem to fit that break perfectly.

Tea is quiet.  I used to interview respondents in Starbucks and sometimes I could barely hear them.  A few days ago, I ordered a cup of tea to-go at the tea shop around the corner.  The clerk (is there a word for a tea barista?)  filled the to-go cup with hot water, added a mesh filter, and put in the tea.  Then, we both twiddled our thumbs for five minutes while it steeped and he could get his filter back.  No wooshing, whirring, or hollering of names.  Even the man making the tea was simply waiting.  Sitting in a tea shop is more leisurely because of the quiet.  There is just conversation or space to read, a nice snack, and of course, the teapot.

Tea has its own culture.  Intellectually, I’ve known this for most of my life.  From the tea ceremonies in Japan2271432166_bce0c11783_o (1), the love that the Brits have for the drink, and the Boston Tea Party, tea has shaped the world.  I really experienced it personally for the first time when we were visiting one of Jeff’s college friends who had lived in Korea for a time.  In his crowded little office of wall-to-wall books, Adam bought out a special tray with an elegant tea pot and cups, and prepared the tea before us.  After he handed us our cups, THEN we could catch up, pausing every once in a while to make sure that our cups were full.  Just the presence of the tea, so thoughtfully presented created an air of hospitality in an otherwise tight situation (picture credit: ~mers).

Tea is cultured.  Because the person is present in the experience, throughout history, there has been a lot of attention given to the beauty and usefulness of the vessels that hold it and serve it.  Our “irreverent” culture has had a lot more fun with teapots and such as of late, and really, there is so much fun that can be had.  The beauty and creativity that goes into tea is impressive.

When we lived in Pasadena, we also experienced what happens when that isn’t respected.  Back in the early days when Starbucks was sweeping the country, Lipton test marketed a tea shop in the shopping district.  The only thing that they did right was the tea (and despite what most people think, Lipton does have good tea, especially when you get away from the grocery store).  The seats were uncomfortable, the atmosphere was bland, and the food that they offered was airline quality.  We liked going there and trying new flavors, but there was nothing there that invited us to sit and relax.

Over the years, I’ve found tea a healthier option than Diet Coke, It has added to various experiences like Asian restaurants, but now I see why tea is a civilizing force.  I am excited to bring it with me, wherever life takes us through the many years.

(top photo credit:  Laurel F)