Interview with gluten free expert Joe Murray

Joseph Murray photo courtesty of Mayo ClinicIn my research for Gluten-Free Living I’ve spoken with many experts, focusing particularly on celiac disease and non-celiac gluten sensitivity. I’ve had the privilege of several fascinating conversations with Joseph Murray, M.D., at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota.

Most articles call for me to interview various people, then select a few smatterings of insight to include. This is one of the hardest parts of journalism: passing judgment on the relevance and erudition of other people’s words, and getting it right.

If I were writing a corporate publication I could let the person proofread my interpretation, but for a journalist this is inappropriate. Certainly, I check facts with the people I interview, but to some extent I must trust my own understanding of what was said. This requires serious homework beforehand and never being afraid to ask stupid questions, especially when discussing something as complicated as an auto-immune disorder.

Last year Dr. Murray wrote Mayo Clinic Going Gluten Free, a definitive volume for anyone who needs to follow the diet. The book became available in November. Gluten-Free Living asked me to do a question-and-answer format story with the author.

As I recall, I received a review copy about 48 hours before the interview. I’m no speed reader, but it was fascinating to wade through. Besides that, I had been following research in this area for a while, so I had some questions he didn’t address in the book.

I took more of his time than usual: a full hour. It was, for me, one of the most interesting interviews I’ve done. Big sections needed to be cut to fit the space available. Fortunately one of these cut questions inspired a further article slated to appear in the March/April issue of the magazine. But essentially, I was able to share with readers most of this stimulating conversation.

If you haven’t already seen it in the magazine, I hope you’ll enjoy it now. I’ve added the PDF to my portfolio page: Writing the Book on Gluten Free: Celiac Disease Expert Joseph Murray Pens a How-To guide.

One of the things I love best abut journalism is telling other people’s stories, and what they know. Dr. Murray is one of those fascinating people with great passion for their work, and it’s satisfying to be in a position of interpreting his knowledge for other people.

Photo of Joseph Murray courtesy of Mayo Clinic.

Grey Shadow, the cat who loved Christmas

Me and Grey Shadow

Christmas reminds me of Grey Shadow.

When I was growing up we had a lot of pets, but Grey Shadow was around longer than any of them. She began life outdoors near our cottage on Lake Erie, where we would later move permanently. Her mother was a feral cat, and the kittens were born on the bluff overlooking the beach. I was only three, but I remember the day one of the Salisbury girls from next door brought the long-haired grey kitten over to see if we would give her a home, and we did.

She took well to life as a pet. We had a beagle-hound cross named Snoopy, who became fast friends with Grey Shadow. In our house in Windsor we could run a circle from the kitchen through the dining room through the living room and back around again. Grey Shadow and I would chase each other tirelessly. Then she would dart to the sun room, hide behind the curtains and play with string I dangled over the back of the chair.

However, the outdoors remained part of her nature, and she preferred to be there. She was an expert huntress, so Mom always tied bells to her collar.

In grade three I went to the birthday party of a friend who lived on a farm, and brought home a baby white rabbit. I named it Cuddles, but the name could not have been less appropriate. He grew into a true bull rabbit who asserted his dominance over the household by biting our ankles and squirting us with urine. His nickname suited him better: Bun. Grey Shadow staunchly pretended not to see him, for two years. So did Snoopy.

Until one day. It was a Saturday morning and we were all around. Bun was loping around the living room floor and Grey Shadow was apparently napping on the mantle of the fireplace. When we were all safely at the far side of the room, she suddenly sprang toward the rabbit.

A good dog always defends the alpha male. Out of nowhere came Snoopy. Friendship took second place to peace, order and hierarchy. Faster than lightning she came between cat and rabbit, preventing murder. Bun hopped away as if nothing had happened, and the other animals ignored him for the rest of his life.

Eight years after Grey Shadow, we adopted another kitten Dad found on the side of the road. Smudge was half monkey, and loved to tease. This brought out Grey Shadow’s no-nonsense temperament. She would hiss and swipe at Smudge, leave the room and ask to be let out.

With age she became more of a carmudgeon, and her outdoor tendencies increased. By then we were living permanently by the lake, her native territory. She would spend all day outside, all night in the summer, coming in only to eat.

Curiously, Grey Shadow loved Christmas. Maybe it started when she was a kitten and liked to play with paper and hide in the boxes. But it persisted after she lost her playfulness. She was drawn to the Christmas tree, and not in any dangerous way. She would sit and look at the lights, then lie underneath and go to sleep.

In old age she became deaf and too arthritic to climb trees easily. This was a dangerous combination for a cat who lived outdoors. She took to sleeping in the sun in the middle of the lawn.

One day a large hawk swooped down at her, but Grey Shadow saw the shadow and leapt three feet into the air, all claws. She didn’t catch the hawk, but it arched swiftly into the sky and left her alone.

We had another cat killer in the neighbourhood, an Irish setter named Stanley, who would sometimes escape from his chain and come barreling around the corner of our house. Smudge would dart up the tree, but Grey Shadow couldn’t hear Stanley coming.

Snoopy was gone by then, but we had adopted another dog. Tanya was a golden retriever, Brittany spaniel cross, the best dog I’ve ever known. She was smart, energetic and gracious. She tolerated the trickster, Smudge, but watched over Grey Shadow dutifully. When Stanley would come around, Tanya would intercept and escort him off our property, giving the old cat a chance to make herself scarce.

My parents believed Grey Shadow would disappear when she died, but that was not the case. It was winter and she had spent most of the day inside, in more discomfort than usual. Then she went behind the TV table, let out a single yowl, lay down and died. By then I had graduated from university. She was 21.

Close encounter with a red fox

Red Fox 2

At the cottage a few days ago I had a close encounter with this red fox. From time to time over the years I’ve come across fox kittens torn between fear and curiosity, but never an adult that would give me the time of day. So I was thrilled to have the opportunity to inspect and photograph one so closely.

I was walking along the road behind the cottage on a mild, sunny morning and had just passed a big, sandy area on the side of the road, when I spied her on the top of a low ridge walking through the edge of the deep woods. She paused to watch me. I quickly and quietly began rummaging through my camera bag and switching on the zoom lens to take a picture, and had just successfully mounted it when she turned to disappear into the trees.

She didn’t seem alarmed or hurried, so I tried clicking my teeth to attract her attention. She immediately turned to take a closer look. Then she began edging down the hillside toward me.

Red Fox 1

Partway down, she found a warm place and sat, blinking at me in the sun. At this point I had the best photo op. She was about 8 metres (26 feet) away. She kept looking away to my right and back the way I had come, presumably the way she wanted to go.

Red Fox 3

After half a minute she got up and followed the ridge in that direction. This led into dense undergrowth. She didn’t seem to like it. She seemed to say, “Screw this!” Reversing course, she gave me another close look and began edging down the slope toward me and the road.

Strange behaviour in wild animals can be a sign of rabies. Rabid foxes in particular are noted for approaching and seeking contact with humans.

This animal looked remarkably healthy. She was larger than most foxes I had seen. She seemed more unconcerned than tame. I thought she was most likely healthy, but didn’t want to take any chances.

Down in the road she stood eying me. Now she was no more than 3 m (10 ft) away. She kept looking to one side. I couldn’t tell whether she was curious about my tripod, which I had set beside me, or just wanted to pass me on the road. Maybe I had just passed her den.

Red Fox 4

She was in shadow and I was too shaky to take a really clear picture. But here she gave me a great look at her beautiful coat. Her eyes looked quite red.

Red Fox 5

Finally, she started to approach me. Now I had had enough. I stamped my foot.

The fox kind of shrugged. She returned to her previous plan, trotted up the slope and disappeared into the undergrowth, leaving me trembling with excitement.

At this point on the road, the nearest neighbours are a couple of nature lovers who live all year at the lake. Previously I posted here a photo from their hummingbird haven, which I visited on a walk earlier this year. I suspect they or someone else along the road have made friends with this fox. She regarded me no more warily than a stranger would upon meeting me in the woods. For me it was a once-in-a-lifetime (so far) meeting; and what a beautiful animal!

Later the same day I was splitting firewood beside the shed when a ruffed grouse lighted on the ground not far away. These forest chickens are usually wary, but this individual didn’t seem to care that I was there. Unfortunately I didn’t have my camera at hand.

Mushroom foraging with Edible Toronto

Oyster mushroom

Check out the fall 2014 issue of Edible Toronto for my latest article, “Trumpets, hedgehogs and chanterelles: Tracking the elusive mushroom.” It relates my recent meeting with Patrick Louch, a caterer, healthy food guru and wild mushroom forager. One recent afternoon in Muskoka, he showed me how to find some of the most luscious fungi in Ontario’s woodlands.

Although some species appear earlier in the year, late summer until the onset of cold weather is the best time to forage for mushrooms. On the weekend I closed down the cottage for winter and took advantage of the opportunity to look around the woods, which is rich with fungi. Many are inedible and some are poisonous so if you try it, go armed with a good field guide and never eat anything you can’t positively identify.

I was lucky to come upon a stump offering a serving for one: my all-time favourite, oyster mushroom, Pleurotus ostreatus. This is the same as the one available in supermarkets, but more tender and flavourful plucked from its natural setting. These were a beautiful ivory colour. I’ve previously written more information about how to identify oyster mushrooms. Slugs are fond of them, too, so make sure you don’t accidentally cook anyone who might want to share your lunch. I sautéed the oysters alone in butter; it’s simply the best way to eat them.

My essay explores some other edible fungi I had never tried before, such as the Craterellus cornucopioides, also known as the black trumpet, black chanterelle or horn of plenty. I’m excited about the knowledge gleaned from my interview with Patrick, and look forward to more abundant foraging in future.

If you live around Toronto east to Haldimand County, the Golden Horseshoe, Guelph or Waterloo Region, look for Edible Toronto at farmers’ markets and specialty food stores. You can also subscribe via the website. I always enjoy working with editor Gail Gordon Oliver, who is not only knowledgeable about food and passionate about ethical eating, but seeks good storytelling. This issue also contains, among others, stories about getting started in farming by Montana Jones, and the groaning cake, a traditional nutritional cake for new mothers, by Aube Giroux.

Here are articles I’ve previously written for the magazine, now available online:

Oyster mushroom

Thanksgiving and hope for a transformative future

Hanlon Creek fall colour

I’m grateful to be able to step outside my backdoor and into green space. I had to work ahead on a writing assignment over this long weekend, but yesterday I took a break to walk through Hanlon Creek Conservation Area, otherwise known as Preservation Park, which I can enter through our back gate.

I came upon a man who was tending a bridge over one of the numerous small streams in this park. He was shoveling soil from the adjoining field and building up the bank to make it less messy and impassible in the spring. I guessed he was a member of Guelph Hiking Trail Club, which maintains trails in the area. But maybe he is just a walker who loves the woods and fields as much as I do. I thanked him for his work.

I don’t take these parks for granted. For a number of years living in downtown apartments, I experienced barriers connecting with nature. Guelph has ample green space, and within five minutes I could easily walk to the Eramosa River or Speed River. And yet something was missing. Living where we do now, I have started to get it back. It has to do with being able to look out the window and see trees and birds, get my hands dirty, grow my own food and walk to a place where I can’t see any buildings.

This is a privilege. More than half of the world’s population now lives in cities. Most of them are not this well designed. A large proportion of humanity lives in slums or on land that is poisoned or impoverished. It’s hard to care about the future of the world when you’re struggling to feed a family.

It is hypocritical for us to develop cleaner energy or protect endangered species in our own countries unless we also support the welfare of people everywhere. Here in Ontario, our migrating birds depend on dwindling Amazon rainforests. Maybe we have more fresh water than anywhere elese, but our farming practices are slowly poisoning the largest lakes on Earth.

This weekend I give thanks because I’m lucky to live with such abundance. At the beginning of the year I set out to deepen my connection with the land by gardening every day, and that ritual has brought a tangible shift in my perspective and mental health. I am grateful for my own determination and ability to grow, for a supportive community and the natural beauty that inspires and rewards me. It gives me hope for my own future, and that humanity as a whole can change its fortunes for the better.

Happy thanksgiving to my family, friends and readers!

Water strider on Hanlon Creek

A passion for places

Cover art: Why We Live Where We Live

It’s something many people take for granted, but it shapes who we are. Why We Live Where We Live is a new book for kids by Kira Vermond (Owlkids, 2014). I happen to live in the same city as Kira, and we both love it: Guelph, Ontario. If you live there, too, don’t miss her book launch on Saturday, Sept. 27, 2014 at 2 p.m. at The Bookshelf.

Kira writes regularly for The Globe and Mail, the National Post and national magazines. She has previously written two other books for kids, Growing Up, Inside and Out (2013) and The Secret Life of Money: A Kid’s Guide to Cash (2012).

As a child I never questioned why my parents chose to live where they did. On the shore of Lake Erie, it was incredibly beautiful, but far from my dad’s work and maybe not the most practical choice. This made me want to live in places with natural beauty. My priorities might have been much different if I had grown up in a highrise apartment, or if we had moved around a lot.

Did you ever wonder why so many people live in cities while most of their food grows somewhere else? Or why some choose to live near volcanoes or earthquake zones? Kira addresses these mysteries with energy, humour and insight about human nature.

I had a chance to ask Kira some questions about her newest book.

Kira Vermond

Q: You must have had some fun writing this book. It shows your passion for places and communities. How did the idea to write this come about?

Kira Vermond: Ideas for my books come from the weirdest places. For Why We Live Where We Live, I was sitting in the car travelling to my in-laws listening to a TED podcast about urban food transportation. It got me thinking that people are only able to live in cities, far from rural agricultural land, because we’ve figured out how to move food in large quantities from farms to urban grocery stores. We’ve learned how to store food, sell food and then dispose of its waste on a massive scale all over the world. That’s incredible. So what other human innovations have given us flexibility in terms of where we call home? It’s a fascinating question – and I think kids are the perfect readers to explore fascinating questions.

Q: Tell us about your collaboration with illustrator Julie McLaughlin.

KV: Here’s something many people don’t know about how kids’ books come together: the author and illustrator usually never talk during a book’s creation. For instance, I didn’t meet Clayton Hanmer, my illustrator for The Secret Life of Money (Owlkids, 2011), until the book was printed and we were in the middle of marketing that book. I still haven’t spoken to Julie, although I keep meaning to shoot off an email.

Editors will keep writers away from the illustrators so we don’t influence (or hamper) their vision and creativity. I do get that, but I’ve figured out ways to get around the blockage: I write a lot of notes to the illustrator in my copy. “Hey, this would be a great place for an illustration to highlight this point about living next to an active volcano!”

I think Julie’s illustrations are beautiful and so colourful. People say they want to pick up the book because the cover is so appealing. I agree.

Q: The book is bright, upbeat and thought-provoking so it will be fun for kids to read. I can also see it being used as a grade school textbook about social sciences. Is that something you had in mind?

KV: Absolutely. This book definitely has more of an educational, text-booky feel than my last two books, but that’s probably because I had researched the school curriculum for a few key Canadian and U.S. school boards before I pitched it. There were a number of points I needed to cover to make the book relevant at school. Even so, I still wanted Why We Live Where We Live to sound like (goofy) me and challenge kids to think critically about their world. Kids are so smart. They deserve books that make them stretch their brains a bit.

Q: As I recall, your family moved around a lot when you were a kid. Can you talk about how that experience shaped your ideas about where people live?

KV: You’re right. By the time I was 22, I’d lived in 20 different houses and in communities that ranged from villages of 300 people to cities of 3-million people. I’ve lived on a lake in Ontario and not far from the beach in California outside of Los Angeles. All that moving around taught me two things: how to make friends quickly (even though I’m an introvert at heart) and that there are so many incredible places to live on this planet. I do believe that many adults get stuck thinking, “I’ve lived in Toronto for 30 years, and so I should stay here.” Seriously? The world is big. Move somewhere new. Try a new place and see if it’s a better fit. Maybe Toronto really is for you, but you might be surprised that you feel more comfortable in a different community.

I do discuss the personality of place in the book and why that’s so important when choosing a place to live. Our road, town, or city needs to feel like home. I know from living in many different communities that some simply feel more natural than others. (For the record, Guelph is my comfy place. Not too big. Not too small. Just right. But I know people who find Guelph too quaint. A bigger city speaks their inner language. I try not to judge.)

Q: How about your experiences as a parent?

KV: Although I’m thankful that I was given the opportunity to see the world as a child, I did find all that moving around stressful. Now that I have kids, we’ve lived in this one house for 10 years. We have no plans to move, but we do travel with our two children a lot so they can discover for themselves that people are able to live almost anywhere.

Q: What three things matter most to you about where you decide to call home?

KV: It has got to have bookstores, theatres and cafes. I need to be able to walk to most places I’d visit daily. My neighbours have to be caring and engaged in what’s happening on the street. I am so lucky to have found a home that gives me all three things.

Q: Where is the best place you have ever lived and why?

KV: Every place has something special to offer us. I used to fish off my dock and catch frogs every day in the summer on Lake Scugog when I was 12. California had fabulous sushi, and the kids, being American, were super friendly and welcoming. I had my own forest to play in and acres of land to roam across as a small child in Guelph. Ottawa taught me that if you bundle up in frozen weather (and don’t mind having hat head all day) it’s easy to brave the cold.

But ultimately, it comes down to the people, No matter where you are and what’s outside your door, that’s just scenery. It’s the people you connect with, laugh with and come to depend on who matter most. They make every place you live, no matter where that is, feel like home.

It’s praying mantis season

Praying mantis

“Watch for them in later summer when they fly from place to place in fields and clearings,” suggests Bugs of Ontario, a Lone Pine field guide by John Acorn and Ian Sheldon. That was precisely what we saw on our walk this afternoon. It’s only the third or fourth one I’ve seen in nature. They’re not uncommon, but stealthy, well-camouflaged predators.

I frequently walk a 20-minute circuit to the east end of our block, through a right-of-way into the conservation area, along a track that passes through the pine plantation and circles our neighbourhood, up a steep hill, through a meadow at the west end of our subdivision, to Edinburgh Road and back to our street.

Today as we crossed the meadow, an ungainly but beautiful insect flew across our path. Its transparent wings glowed pale gold in the sunlight. Then it landed in the weeds and posed for the camera. I was surprised and thrilled at what I found staring back at me.

Unlike all other insects, mantises have articulated necks allowing them to look over their shoulders. If you approach, they will fix their hypnotic, disturbing gaze upon you.

Mantises are effective predators and will eat anything they can grab, often cannibalizing their own kind, but are harmless to humans. Gardeners like them because they eat insect pests. However, mantises will prey just as readily on pollinators and other beneficial insects.

Ontario does not have any native mantises, and this is the only common species, Mantis religiosa. It was introduced from Europe about a century ago.

Continuing along the path, I almost stepped on another one. Two in one day! So if you go walking to enjoy this fine weather and the vibrant wildflowers of our September meadows, keep an eye out for this insect.

The vole that ate my potatoes

Mystery vole

This morning while digging the last potatoes from the garden, I disturbed this vole. At first sight, it darted from a clod of earth I’d dug into the straw. But then a few minutes later I saw it again, shuddering beside the garden, obviously stunned.

I never get a chance to inspect a live mouse or vole closely, so I took the opportunity. It had distinct, rather lovely gold bands, like a mantle along its sides, and a tail longer than its body.

I expected it to be a common meadow vole, Microtus pennsylvanicus. However, the rodent atlas on Ontario Nature’s site says they have “uniformly dark brown or grayish pelage (Peterson 1966).” I didn’t have a rule, but estimate the animal stretched out would have measure about 9 cm, with a tail almost as long.

Voles are supposed to have shorter tails than mice. But this was certainly not a deer mouse or white-footed mouse, and other vole species of Ontario are more boreal and do not seem to have this colouration. So this little creature is a puzzle. Hopefully, by posting these pictures, I’ll be able to find someone more knowledgeable who can identify it.

Mystery vole with long tail

We have to snap-trap mice at the cottage constantly to keep the place clean and liveable, and I hate doing it. Still, I had a thought to bash this individual with the side of my garden fork. Last year voles consumed almost my entire planting of potatoes, but this year the crop took hardly any damage. Fortunately, I felt more pity than bitterness.

I don’t know whether it was cold and disoriented, or perhaps I had injured it in digging and stomping around. It was trembling and seemed incapable of running away. After taking these pictures, I covered it with straw.

Here are the six varieties of potatoes I grew this year (clockwise from top left): linzer delicatess, pink fir apple, warba, banana, yellow finn and caribe.

Potato varieties

Pink fir apple and banana are two fingerling varieties I tried to grow last year, but most of the seed potatoes were eaten. I saved a few in the basement through the winter and planted them this spring. They’re both late varieties. I just harvested them this morning. There were only a few small pink fir apples, but the bananas were probably the most prolific plants I’ve grown this year. We haven’t tasted any yet.

Pink-eyed warba is very tasty, one of my favourite varieties from previous years. Caribe is white-fleshed, tastes not bad, and is good for boiling or baking. These are both early varieties. We had our first meal of new caribe potatoes in mid-July and I dug the rest about six weeks ago. Warba was ready a month ago.

Linzer delicatess and yellow finn are mid-season potatoes. I planted them in the newest bed, so the soil fertility was not the greatest, and they did not produce as many tubers as might be expected, but plenty for our purposes.

I dug the linzer delicatess about 10 days ago. I’ve been cutting them in half, drizzling them with olive oil and some seasoning, and roasting them at 425°F for 20 minutes. And they are a sensation, another variety I look forward to growing for years to come.

The yellow finn came out of the garden just two days ago, and we haven’t tried any yet, but they are supposed to be one of the tastiest gourmet potatoes. In richer soil they would be abundant producers, and they’re supposed to be good keepers.

Since I had such good results from the wintered-over potatoes, I’ll save a few of each variety for seed next year. We expect to move this fall, so hopefully I’ll be starting a new garden somewhere next spring. I won’t plant many potatoes, because they need a lot of space and rich, mature soil; not too much fresh compost.

But for this time around I have a large harvest of potatoes in baskets on the basement stairs. They should keep us well for most of the winter.

Damselflies chase water striders

Water striders

I could sit for hours on the dock at the cottage, just watching the water glide and nature unfold. On calm days (and most mornings are calm) water striders spark across the surface of the bay. Dragonflies hover, defend their airspace, hunt and mate. But this summer for the first time I noticed these two insect group interacting in a particular way.

Water striders have always entranced me. Their community looks like a negative image reflection of the multitude of stars in the same still water at night. Each one moves like a jerking vector with quick strokes of its little legs. They seem to bounce off each other like molecules in Brownian motion. They vanish when wind whips up waves, but sometimes they pile onto lily pads. Here are some interesting facts about water striders:

  1. Their hydrophobic legs allow them to walk on surface tension. The middle pair of legs is specially adapted with extra hairs for rowing.
  2. Their front legs detect water vibrations, allowing them to locate prey and declare individual territory.
  3. Water striders prey on other insects, preferring live victims that fall onto the surface.
  4. They are true bugs (Hemiptera), so they have sucking mouth parts. They feed by puncturing prey with their claws, then sucking out their meal.
  5. Water strider nymphs are left to fend for themselves and often cannibalized by adults. North American species do not recognize their own kin, so they may eat their own young.
  6. Outside of mating season, they seldom cannibalize. Large cooperative groups may form to feed on large insects.
  7. Some generations of the same species do not have wings and others do, allowing them to disperse to other areas or bodies of water. Most individuals inhabiting stable bodies, such as lakes, do not have wings.
  8. Cannibalism and flight dispersal control population size.
  9. Scientists have identified more than 1,700 species worldwide, with 10 percent living on seas and oceans.

Water strider movements

This summer we had a big, healthy crop of water striders on the bay. This caught the attention of little bluets. These damselflies are one of nine Enallagma species found in Ontario, all difficult to distinguish. They’re no bigger than a darning needle and make no sound as they fly.

Bluet (damselfly)

Bluets hovered over the crowd, causing a commotion. Wherever they flew, a path cleared like the waters of the Red Sea as water striders scrambled to escape. However, the damselflies spent less time over the large groups than scattered individuals. They looked like sharks confused by a swirling school of fish, waiting to pick off stragglers. Occasionally one would duck down to the surface for a catch.

Water striders can also fly to escape predators. I couldn’t tell whether these ones were wingless. But even in the air, presumably they would have a hard time evading such an agile hunter.