Fermenting foods to soothe an older gut

Fermenting cabbage, tea, and milk at home
Fermenting cabbage, tea, and milk at home

So much fermentation in my kitchen! How come?

Old digestive systems grow a bit cranky and tender. And it’s so irritating when you realise you can’t handle quite as much coffee as in your wild and wicked years of youth. But that’s not why my kitchen has gradually become a bacteria brewery.

For years I’ve eaten various fermented foods, including yoghurt, sauerkraut, cheese, wine, umeboshi, and miso. Now that science is demonstrating their many benefits, I’ve started making my own. It’s kind of fun, and I only do the easy ones. I began with sour plum concentrate and then kombucha to control a lifelong acid reflux problem: beats medication hands down.

  • Sauerkraut is working away in that blue and gold bowl under a bag of water. This one is from red cabbage. Great with Hunter sausage and boiled new potatoes.
  • Kombucha (fermented tea) is brewing in the pottery jar topped with a dish cloth, and another batch is having its second brew in bottles: I added lemon and ginger this time for flavour and to create more fizz.
  • Yoghurt? Home made is best but it’s far too tricky, so I make yoghurt from a packet.

King Kefir: best of all fermented foods is the easiest to make at home

home made kefir in jars
Fermenting milk kefir is ridiculously simple

I make kefir from skim milk with added calcium, adding a dash of cream to thicken it up. But you really can’t go wrong. The long-suffering kefir starter grains are hiding in their own slimy milk in the smaller jar, ready to work on the next batch. Kefir on porridge, kefir smoothies — anything yoghurt does, kefir does better.

Fermented foods are yummy but what work do they do?

You’ll find heaps of research on the subject in the US National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health, if you’re interested. For older people, the benefits may or may not include the following:

  • may help digestion
  • may prevent acid reflux
  • may moderate Alzheimer’s symptoms — one small study so far suggests this
  • may help with depression
  • may help to control diabetes.

And who knows what else? The mysterious, pervasive, holistic function of our microbiota is a hot new playground for scientific researchers in numerous fields.

More information from trusted sources about fermented foods

Expressive Writing: simple DIY writing therapy for painful memories

Expressive Writing: write, shred, write, shred, write, shred: done!
Expressive Writing: write, shred, write, shred, write, shred: done!

Write over your troubles: that was the theme on Day One of our 2018 summer writing school.

In three short sessions, we followed the instructions of Professor James Pennebaker, which have not changed much since his discovery of this extraordinary process many years ago. He calls it Expressive Writing. Interspersed with those three sessions, we did some positive journaling exercises to increase objectivity, empathy, and optimism.

I offered alternatives to the Expressive Writing sessions, but everyone (I think) wrote about a personal experience. We shredded our writing ceremoniously after each session, and we didn’t discuss it: that’s a rule. However, half the members said privately that this had been highly effective for them, helping to free them from something that was hindering their life and writing.


What is Expressive Writing?

Pennebaker had a hunch that simply writing three or four times about a trauma, each time examining the story more closely, would favourably affect people’s health.

In his first experiment, he asked groups of students to write for 20 minutes on three consecutive days about an emotional event that still disturbed them. Each time, they were to express their deepest, most private feelings and thoughts around the event, knowing that nobody would ever see what they wrote. The second time, they were to go deeper and wider, perhaps exploring the context, the impact on themselves and others. And on the last occasion, they were encouraged to try and make sense of the event, using words like because, realize, understand.

Each time, what they wrote was destroyed, and they did not discuss the event or their writing.

He wanted to see if those students then had fewer visits to the doctor in the following year than a control group. Indeed they did, and their grades improved too. And so began a wave of research that confirmed that writing this way, within these constraints, could heal. Over 200 studies have shown measurable healing effects on groups with PTSD, chronic pain, cancer, asthma, psoriasis, and even fresh wounds. Today this form of writing therapy, along with variations, is commonly used in many countries.

Writing often heals, but sometimes picks the scab

Writing has performed its own mysterious therapy from time immemorial. You have almost certainly experienced the magic of writing: it makes you feel better!

However, writing about painful experiences can certainly backfire. I see scores of bloggers writing over and over and over again about the same disturbing event, and chances are that writing is making them feel worse, not better. I’ve done it myself, in a journal: initially it feels exhilarating, but if you carry on, the writing tends to become yukky and counterproductive.

By contrast, Expressive Writing has constraints of time and exposure and theme. That makes all the difference.

Cat playing with shredded paper
All that remains of a painful event: a few shreds of paper.

Why is Expressive Writing better than a diary?

Why does this work better than just writing about painful events in a journal or diary? Well, I don’t know, but these are my thoughts after having experienced both forms.

  • No talking is involved in Expressive Writing. There’s no therapist: you can do it yourself from written instructions.
  • The writing is private, it’s safe, and there’s no threat of exposure.
  • It’s like telling a secret without talking.
  • It’s the opposite of rumination, where an ugly event loops over and over in your mind, each time the same old story, your thoughts running along well-worn ruts. That story might have been comforting at first, reassuring you, getting your version straight. But when it gets stuck, you get stuck.
  • Expressive writing gently encourages people to change their story, to see things in a different light. It’s a therapy for getting unstuck.
  • Expressive writing has a time limit. You make progress — and then you stop. By contrast, writing in a diary has no end. If you keep writing about sad or bad events, it can lure you into an unhealthy cycle of self-pity or self-justification or resentment.

Why does Expressive Writing heal at all?

Nobody seems to know for sure, but these theories are plausible.

  • It relieves stress, especially for those who are troubled by an untold secret.
  • Stress relief improves the immune system.
  • Stress relief improves sleep.

If this interests you, you’ll find ample information about it online, and even a book of instructions:
Expressive Writing: Words That Heal by James Pennebaker and John Evans, on Amazon


Travel expands the culinary skills

Fondue on a table, bread on two forks dipping in
Classic Swiss fondue. Photo by Jerome, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

How our repertoire as cooks expands when we travel! What startling new ideas bombard us at cafes and restaurants in exotic places!

As a newlywed, I spent four years living in Geneva, from 1960–1963. This experience made a momentous impression on me, and as for the food, it was bouleversant.

My food background: post-war, English-style cooking

Bear in mind that we came from New Zealand, and in the 1960s we were just emerging from a very basic meat-and-three-veg policy for meals. (I’m not complaining: my mother’s cooking was tasty and economical, and gave me a sound basis in nutrition.)

A typical New Zealand salad was iceberg lettuce sliced finely like cole slaw, mixed with all manner of extras and smothered in pretend-mayonnaise that was essentially sweetened condensed milk plus malt vinegar. Yuck.

Before marriage I had taken a course in so-called “Continental cooking”, learning a new dish every week. They were yummy, but rich and heavy: think Hungarian goulash and coq au vin. What I learned: if in doubt add wine and cream.

My food education: eating, talking, eating, drinking

My education in Geneva was organic. We were asked to dinner many times by my boss Peggy and her husband Ray. They were gourmets extraordinaires (sorry, the French keeps bubbling up) with an excellent cook, and they also introduced us to the glorious specificity of cafe life. Local specialties and celebrated chefs abounded, even in the smallest village. You went to Cafe X in the month of Y and ordered dish Z, which was famous throughout the land: everyone else knew that, but we had to be told—and taken.

Of course there were numerous cafe outings with other friends, and we did indeed frequently eat cheese fondue, raclette with small potatoes and gherkins, sauerkraut with  special and specific sausages (depending on the date and location), and so on. Wine, wine, wine, and kirsch featured strongly.

I lapped up these strange new comestibles and styles.

What I learned and never forgot

Back  home in New Zealand, we continued to have fondue parties for some years: they were fun. That’s a hefty dish, good for snow-bound winters in the mountains. Also, for years I made my own sauerkraut and croissants—because nobody else did.

But the most important things I learned were very different, and extraordinarily modern:

  • to include a side salad with every meal
  • to honour simple ingredients as an entree in themselves, without mash-up, for example asparagus or radishes
  • to respect freshness and simplicity
  • to serve smaller helpings
  • to pay attention when eating
  • to experiment when cooking.

These culinary principles influence me to this day. Thank you, Geneva!

Rachel on ski-slope in Switzerland 1962
That’s me, ready for my apres-ski treat. Every snack an adventure in Switzerland!


Puzzled, pleasured, and pacified by a city stroll


Plants in a puzzling perspective? Just shadows on the pavement.

The room they forgot at Massey University. And forgot and forgot and forgot.

Red doors to heaven? Just a Massey University thing.

Hard to see but this ngaio tree is populated by kaka, native birds spreading out from Zealandia, a conservation island in a city

Old ngaio tree near the Carillon? Yes, and can you see six kaka nibbling buds and blundering over branches?

Pet rabbit on a leash, resting in a jacket
Buddy-rabbit tucked into a jacket

Toy on a tummy? Just a Buddy-Rabbit tired after his big Saturday walk.

But I am refreshed by a tiny walk across Wellington. Such pleasure, such puzzles. Light and shade. Mini-eccentricities. New native bird life. Student with a rabbit on a leash.

I love my little city.

Daily Post prompt, photos rachel mcalpine cc by 2.0


Souvenirs: joy of travel in retrospect

Couch with souvenir cushions from 5 countries
Everyday reminders of travel: exotic cushion covers

Souvenirs of travel are never far away in my apartment. Maybe I won’t travel to any faraway places in future: my body doesn’t like it much.. However, I’ll never forget the places I’ve lived in or visited, because discreet reminders are close at hand. These cushion covers were collected at random. If only I’d brought one back from the Malvinas, or Chile, or Argentina, or the Tokelaus, or Tonga, or (for goodness’ sake!) Geneva, where I lived for four years… Anyway, I love my accidental decor, and I kid myself the cushions  go together.

I wonder, what souvenirs do you bring home from your travels?


  1. Christchurch, woven by my sister Prue
  2. Kyoto, cushion for our favourite doll, Kyoko
  3. A local shop
  4. Dhaka
  5. Ditto
  6. Marrakech
  7. Samoa

For any life strategy, ask a child

Row of Barbies ready to kill zombies with a sneer
Row of vintage Barbies preparing to kill zombies with a sneer.

Listen to the little children in your life! They may not have all the “facts”, as we adults understand them. Regardless, they manage to decode our strange world and generate workable rules of behaviour. When we really hear what they say, they astonish with their wisdom and practical advice.

The everyday struggle with everyday problems

When I agreed to mind Elsie after school on Wednesdays, I had no idea what lay ahead.

Like you, I have problems—life isn’t easy, is it? Like you, I struggle with everyday challenges such as career changes, emergency first aid, work-life balance, and zombies coming up the toilet. Even at my advanced age, such problems never go away.

Enter my life coach: Elsie aged five

Imagine my surprise when Elsie seemed to have all the answers! From the age of five, she could offer sound advice for virtually any problem. Obviously I had more experience of life. But when it came to strategy, Elsie was my guru. She was a thinker, a lateral blue skies analytical creative left-and-right-brain thinker who didn’t even know there was a square outside of which one ought to think. (Still is.)

She became my life coach. I jotted down all her tips as poems, for easier recall. After about three years I stopped, because she had already delivered a comprehensive manual for a healthy happy life. When you know how to act cool and how to vote, when you understand market forces and the principles of law and order, like Elsie you will have nothing left to learn.

One example of an Elsie strategy

Advanced self-defence

If a zombie comes up the toilet
you can whisk off and fight it,
because you know the steps.

Put some Barbie dolls in a row
because zombies hate Barbie dolls.
They’re afraid they’ll chomp them.

You can also shine a light at zombies.
It injects them
and they die.

See what I mean? How can you go wrong with advice like that?

All my problems are sorted now

Since then, I have internalised most of Elsie’s strategies. As a result, I have become quite competent at thinking, sleeping, remembering, breathing, and having a wee rest. Now that my life is perfect, I plan to share this manual with a wider human audience. (Elsie’s Book of Strategies will be published in late 2018.)

Elsie has fixed my life. But you also have a little child in your family or your circle of friends. In a crisis, make that child your first port of call. They love to help, you know…

Photo by RomitaGirl67 CC BY 2.0

Doctor, security patch, flight plan: analyse my dream

cartoon of woman flying, the key to security
My dream, your interpretation

OK, nothing so boring as someone else’s dream, ay? I’ll be brief. Here it is:

I’m looking at some HTML5 markup. I’ve been told I need to insert a password to fix a security breach, but where, how?

My ex-GP, retired after 4o years of doctoring me and others, steps up. She knows what to do. “I’ll show you,” she says.

And she spins in two quick dance moves, fast as skating, then soars in a flight, 7 metres or so, lands, does it again. “See?”

“I can do that,” I think.

Clues to help you in your analysis

  1. For years I did all my own HTML and CSS (no big deal)
  2. Recently I shucked off a stressful, thankless responsibility
  3. I had flying dreams for years, then stopped (in my 50s? why?)
  4. I have an unresolved security issue on my computer

Your turn: tell me what you think it means!

Just for fun, OK? Nobody has to be “right”. But trust me, I am extreeeemly interested to know what you think.