La version française de ces histoires se trouve sur En direct de l'intestin grêle

Wouldn't it be great if these stories were true? Unfortunately (or fortunately) they're not; they are just the product of my overworked mind. All characters and events are fictitious and if you think you recognize yourself or somebody you know in these stories, it was not my purpose and it is purely unintentional. In the meantime, I hope you will enjoy reading this blog. Feel free to link this blog wherever else you hang out on the Internet and to post comments below. I enjoy hearing from you.


Sunday, April 21, 2013

The Pressure Cooker

Version française

When I was four years old, my father brought home a pressure cooker. It was one of those “modern” devices aimed at taking some pressure off domestic life (excuse the pun or don’t) by cooking food faster.

steam digester, steam, pressure cooker, valve, steam regulator, Presto, Eau Claire, Wisconsin
This pressure cooker was made from cast aluminum by National Presto Industries, a company that also manufactures adult incontinence products. Notice the steam regulator cap sitting on top of the vent pipe at the centre of the lid. I cooked delicious Boston baked beans in this vessel in 45 minutes.

Cooking with pressure cookers is different from cooking with regular saucepans. A small amount of liquid – water or broth for example – must be heated to a boil in a sealed container. As the pressure builds up inside the vessel, the heat is turned down to let the food simmer while maintaining enough steam.

When the food is nearly cooked, the heat is turned off and cooking continues as pressure gradually abates. The pressure regulator capping the steam vent should not be removed while the pot is under pressure.

Also, if the cooker is overfilled, the steam vent over which sits the pressure regulator might become obstructed, causing the pressure to build up inside the cooker and force out the content through the pressure valve.

That’s what my father learned to his dismay when he first cooked a three-pound ham using too much beer as a cooking liquid. The whole ham escaped through the tiny pressure valve and splattered on the kitchen ceiling, making my mother very angry at the mess he created and fearful of using the apparatus.

Even though pressure cooking seemed modern in the early 60’s, it certainly was not a recent invention. Denis Papin (1647-1712), a French Huguenot, discovered it.

Tired of being picked on for his religious beliefs by the powers that be in France, he moved to England in 1675. In London, he met Robert Boyle (1627-1691), an Irish-English chemist who was experimenting with air pressure.

At the time, England was undergoing a tremendous scientific revolution. Francis Bacon’s scientific method was the rage amongst “natural philosophers” who were experimenting with practically anything. This led to a radical new way of looking at the causes and effects in the natural world which, people were discovering, was not what they thought it was.

We are not exactly sure how Denis Papin came to experiment with steam. However, I can certainly imagine him sitting in a pub, drinking cheap Spanish wine and listening to Robert Boyle pompously lecturing about air pressure. While Boyle was going on and on about his views on pneumatics, Papin was probably thinking that it was a bunch of hot air.

After all, air is immaterial, it cannot be seen or touched. Of course one can feel it as the wind blows but Papin perhaps thought scientists should focus on something more concrete.

At that moment, the innkeeper might have been preparing tea on the stove, a new beverage that was becoming popular in England. Taking a sip of his wine, looking at the saucepan of water on the stove, Denis Papin maybe thought ahead of Benjamin Franklin that “a watched pot never boils.” Boil.

Boyle was explaining that the volume of a gas is inversely proportional to its pressure. Crazy Boyle. Boyle. Boil. Wait a minute! When water boils it turns to steam. Steam is a gas and unlike air, it can be seen!

This may not be what really happened but I do know that inspiration sometimes comes in strange ways.

Tea pot, China, porcelain, handle, spout, lid
Tea (Camellia sinensis) was a luxury item in the 18th century. It was heavily taxed by the British government which led to the famous Boston Tea Party where the gentle people of this New England town unloaded into the harbour three shiploads of this merchandise as a protest.
Anyway, in 1679, Denis Papin addressed the Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge on the subject of a new invention he was creating: the “steam digester” which was the ancestor of the modern pressure cooker. Two years later, according to the legend, when Papin cooked a delicious stew to demonstrate the prototype he was presenting, the Royal Society was so impressed that it invited him to become a member.

In the 17th century the line between gastronomy and science was very thin.

After a few years, Papin moved to Germany and invented the piston steam engine. He returned to England many years later and unsuccessfully asked the Royal Society to reinstate him.

caricature, Sir Isaac Newton, book, glasses, wig
Sir Isaac Newton (1642-1727) was the head of the Royal Society of London when Denis Papin tried to be reinstated. Newton probably refused deciding that fine cooking was an art rather than a science.
Denis Papin died destitute and relatively unknown, presumably in 1712, and was buried most likely in an unmarked pauper’s grave in London.

Given that so many inventors suffer the same ungrateful fate, it is surprising that anybody attempts to discover new things.

My father was not discouraged by his first experiment with a pressure cooker. Actually he cooked with it all his life, as I have. Used properly, a pressure cooker will produce tasty meals quickly, giving you more time to focus on other endeavours, like blogging.

Thursday, April 11, 2013


Several years ago, around the time smoking in Canadian workplaces was banned, I was working under a contract in a gigantic office complex. Smokers had to go outside under a large, damp, concrete portico with a two story-high roof sarcastically called the “Batcave.” It was there, in the middle of winter, surrounded by the haggard faces of scores of other smokers, that I developed a nasty cough.

portico, columns, pillars, stairs, handrail, modern office building
The Batcave is where Batman retires to light up a Batsmoke when he needs a Batfix. The stairs, of course, lead to Wayne Manor.

After a few days, I started having trouble breathing and my chest hurt. When a fever set in, I knew something was wrong. I took a day off hoping rest would improve my condition. It did not and I became convinced that I had pneumonia.

I went to a walk-in clinic early the next morning. After about 45 minutes of waiting coughing my lungs out, a young doctor finally saw me in his office. He asked me the reason for my visit while distractedly looking at his computer monitor.

– Doctor, I have this bad cough and a fever. I think it might be pneumonia.

– Really? Let me have a look, he said, taking out his stethoscope.

He auscultated me, looked at my eyes, my tongue, inside my ears, took my temperature, checked my pulse and my blood pressure then said the only way to be sure would be for me to go to the emergency ward at the hospital and have some x-rays taken.

– But this is a medical clinic, don’t you have an x-ray machine?

– We would need specially-trained personnel and right now we only have doctors, a nurse and some administrative staff.

– Well, I have a friend who’s a dental hygienist. She operates the x-ray machine all the time at work. If I may, let me call her and ask her to come and take the picture.

– Sir, we don’t have an x-ray machine, you have to go to the hospital.

– You don’t have an x-ray machine? Even the vet where I take my dog has an x-ray machine!

– I’m sorry sir, go to the emergency ward at the hospital, they will help you there.

I had the feeling I was annoying him and that he was politely trying to get rid of me.

lungs, heart, windpipe, aorta
Pneumonia is an inflammation of the alveoli, where oxygen passes from the lungs into the bloodstream. According to William Osler (1849-1919), the Canadian-born physician known as the “Father of modern medicine,” pneumonia will kill you quickly and relatively painlessly. This affliction is celebrated on World Pneumonia Day, November 12 every year.

So I left for the hospital, knowing that my case was not an emergency yet and that I probably would have to wait hours before seeing a doctor.

Emergency waiting rooms are grim, sullen places. At this one, the medical staff was limited to a receptionist and a nurse locked up in a glass-enclosed office.

I pitied this caregiver: outnumbered in a roomful of dangerously sick people, she could provide no relief until the intervention of a medical doctor.

I arrived around 10:00 AM. There were already 25 people waiting. Some were old and silent, others were restless children accompanied by their parents. The rest, like myself, were in their 40s or 50s and did not look overly sick except for some hacking coughs, ugly skin rashes and obvious lack of energy.

I gave my requisition to the receptionist and took a seat. I picked up a two year-old issue of People magazine on a nearby table and set myself for a wait that I expected to be long. I hoped I could sleep between coughing fits.

A young couple entered the room in a frenzy. The man had his hand wrapped in a bloody towel. He had taken off two of his fingers with a circular saw as he was building kitchen cupboards. The nurse put on a temporary dressing on his wound and told him to take a seat. Soon he was being attended to by a physician.

Sick people came in, others left, tired of waiting. I wished I could smoke a cigarette but I was in no condition to indulge in my favourite pastime. Finally, I dozed off and dreamt of drowning: I woke up painfully choking on my phlegm. I was feeling dizzy from the fever.

Around 3:00 PM, I was called into an examination room. A nurse gave me a hospital gown to put on and asked me to wait. When the doctor came in 15 minutes later, I explained that I thought I had pneumonia and she proceeded to examine me in the same way the walk-in clinic doctor had several hours before. Then she asked me to lie on my side and left the room.

As I was facing the wall in a daze, I heard the door of the observation room open and close followed by the characteristic snapping sound of latex gloves being put on. Then I felt somebody trying to pull down my underpants. Startled and confused, I quickly rolled onto my back to find a surprised young nurse dressed in scrubs with her hand caught between my bottom and the gurney I was lying on.

– Excuse me, but what exactly are you trying to do? I said.

– I need to take a stool sample, she replied, flustered. Please let go of my arm.

– I’m afraid you have the wrong room, I said, lifting my behind to free her hand. My bowels are just fine, It’s my lungs that are causing me grief. I will gladly give you a mucus sample instead if you want, I replied snarkily

– No, I need a stool sample, she said, missing the irony. It’s a standard procedure. We have to take one from all patients to have it checked for harmful bacteria. Now, please, turn on your side and let me do my work.

I cringed as she uncomfortably probed me with a plastic tool. Having bacteria potentially lodged deep in my rectum threatening the outside world did not make me feel any more dignified.

Roman citizens, couch, dog, statue, pedestal, toga, columns
John G. Bourke (1843-1896) in Scatalogical Rites of All Nations, explains that ancient Romans worshipped Cloacina, goddess of the sewers. In the above illustration, Roman priests and their acolytes prepare to take a stool sample from a woman as an offering to their deity.
Finally, the doctor came back and told me x-rays would have to be taken. I was to get dressed and go back to the waiting room.

Two hours later I was called to the radiology room, three floors up and hidden in a maze of cluttered hallways.

I put on another hospital gown and a technician asked me to stand still against an upright table. He then rolled the x-ray machine close to my chest. The machine whirred, clanged and banged while it was taking pictures of my innards. After a few minutes of this, one of the attendants said I could get dressed and go back to the emergency ward’s waiting room. Despite feeling disoriented from the fever, I managed to find my way back to the anteroom of the hospital.

Dozing on and off, I waited for another 90 minutes before I was called back to the observation room. The doctor told me the x-rays were positive: I had pneumonia. She wrote a prescription for antibiotics and sent me away telling me to take a 10-day leave from work.

After having my prescription filled at the drugstore, I laid in bed at home considering the 12 hours I just spent among the sick, the injured and those commissioned to care for them. It seemed a long time to have somebody qualified telling me what I knew all along.

Ultimately I fell into a nightmare-filled sleep. I was standing half naked in front of a fingerless man who was holding an insect repellent vaporizer and asking me to spread my buttocks while a group of doctors and nurses observed the procedure smilingly nodding their approval.