Rhyme and Reason: Gulp by Mary Roach

Rhyme and Reason is where the excerpts I enjoy, from books I’m currently reading, come to live.

Mary Roach approaches the subject of food and what happens to it once it’s eaten with a mix of unbridled delight, ceaseless curiousity, infectious enthusiasm and a whole lot of hilarity. Which makes reading her book an incredibly enchanting experience. I’ve become a huge fan of her zealous writing and her ability to make science so much fun. I can’t wait to read everything else she’s written, which include books about dead bodies, sex, space and the afterlife.

Gulp deals with a myriad of topics you wouldn’t expect to find in a book about digestion including, as this particular excerpt shows, the existence of dragons in mythology. As the author says in the introduction, “I don’t want you to say, ‘This is gross.’ I want you to say, ‘I thought this would be gross, but it’s really interesting.’ Okay, and maybe a little gross.


Snakes don’t belch, but they can, under certain circumstances, create an inflammable eructation of literally mythical proportions. First, a little background: Many plant-eating animals lack rumens, so some fermenting takes place in the cecum, an anatomical pouch at the junction of the small intestine and the colon. These same plant-eaters – horses, rabbits, koalas, to name three – tend to have a larger-than-life cecum. Pythons and boas do too, which struck Stephen Secor as odd, because they’re carnivores. Why, he wondered, would a meat-eater need a vegetation disgestion unit? Secor theorised that perhaps these snakes had evolved ceca as a way to digest and take advantage of plant matter inside the stomachs of their prey.

To test his theory, Secor fed rats to some of the pythons in his lab at the University of Alabama and hooked them up to a gas chromatograph. He tracked the hydrogen level in their exhalations as they digested whole rats over the course of four days. He did see a spike, but it appeared long before the rat arrived at the python’s cecum. Instead, Secor suspected, the hydrogen spikes were the result of the decomposing, gas-bloated rat bursting inside the python. ‘One thing led to another.’ (Secor’s way of saying he popped a bloated rat corpse and measured the hydrogen that came off it.) Suspicion confirmed. The hydrogen level was ‘through the roof’. Secor had stumbled onto a biological explanation for the myth of the fire-breathing dragon. Stay with me. This is very cool.

Roll the calendar back a few millennia and picture yourself in a hairy outfit, dragging home a python you have hunted. Hunted is maybe the wrong word. The python was digesting a whole gazelle and was in no condition to fight or flee. You rounded a bend and there it was, Neanderthal turducken. Gazython. The fact that the gazelle is partially decomposed does not bother you. Early man was a scavenger as well as a hunter. He was used to stinking meat. And those decomp gases are key to our story. Which I now turn over to Secor.

‘So this python is full of gas. You set it down by the campfire because you’re going to eat it. Somebody kicks it or steps on it, and all this hydrogen shoots out of its mouth.’ Hydrogen, as the you and I of today know but the you and I of the Pleistocene did not know, starts to be flammable at a concentration of 4 percent. And hydrogen, as Stephen Secor showed, comes out of a decomposing animal at a concentration of about 10 percent. Secor made a flame-throwery whooosh sound. ‘There’s your fire-breathing serpent. Imagine the stories that would generate. Over a couple thousand years, you’ve got yourself a legend. He did some digging. The oldest stories of fire-breathing dragons come from Africa and south China: where the giant snakes are.

Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal by Mary Roach


What Enid Blyton Ate: The Secret Island

What Enid Blyton Ate celebrates food in the Blyton-verse by listing all the scrumptiousness a particular book describes.

Since I spent a large part of my childhood reading Enid Blyton books, I thought I was pretty well-read when it came to her canon. It’s only now that I’ve discovered how many of her books I haven’t even touched, and how many more I haven’t even heard of. I think reading all the Enid Blyton books that exist is a pretty achievable life goal, though.

The Secret Island is one of those books I discovered only in adulthood. I was in a reading slump a couple of weeks ago; well, it only lasted for 3 days, and I didn’t stop reading longform articles online, but that still counts as a slump for someone who otherwise always has her nose buried in a book. And I should have known a Blyton book was the best cure. I enjoyed it so much even at 24 that I’m almost disappointed 8-year-old me didn’t get to experience the book too.


The children gazed at one another in glee. A house of wood, built by themselves – and a cave! How lucky they were to have a friend like Jack, who had a boat and a secret island.

The book features four children who run away from a bunch of unpleasant relatives and set up home on a deserted island. Which, luckily, provides plenty of exciting glimpses at food (not that Blyton ever needed an excuse).

  • They went back to the little landing-place, hungry and happy. They sat down and ate their bread and ham, carrots and peas, cherries and lettuces, and cake. It was the loveliest meal they had ever had in their lives, they thought.
  • Peggy ran off up the hill and down the other side to the spring. She filled the kettle and went back. The others had put out enamel mugs ready to drink from. Mike was busy looking out for something to eat, too. He had put out a loaf of bread, some young carrots, which they all loved to nibble, a piece of cheese each, and a cake. What a meal that was!
  • The children were hungry gain. They got out the rest of the cakes, and finished up the bread, eating some peas with it, which they shelled as they ate.
    “Are we going to have any supper?” asked Mike.
    “We might have a cup of cocoa each and a piece of my cake,” said Jack. “We must be careful not to eat everything at once that we’ve brought, or we’ll go short! I’ll do some fishing tomorrow.”
  • Soon all four children were up and about. Jack made them take off their things and have a dip in the lake. It was simply lovely, but the water felt cold at first. When they had dried themselves on an old sack – for they had no towels – the children felt terribly hungry. But Jack had been busy. He had set his fishing-line, and, even as they bathed, he had seen the float jerk up and down. It was not long before Jack proudly laid four fine trout on the sand of the cove, and set about to make a fire to cook them.
    Mike went to fill the kettle to make some tea. Peggy got some big potatoes out of the sack and put them almost in the fire to cook in their skins. Jack found the frying-pan in their storeroom and put a piece of margarine in it to dry the fish, which he knew exactly how to clean.
    “I don’t know what we should do without you,” said Mike, as he watched Jack. “Goodness! How I shall enjoy my breakfast!”
  • “I want something to eat,” said Nora. “I’m so hungry that I feel I could eat snails!”
    “Well, get out four eggs and we’ll have some with potatoes,” said Jack. “We’ll boil the eggs in our saucepan. There’s plenty of potatoes, too. After the eggs are boiled, we’ll boil some potatoes and mash them up. That will be nice for a change. We’ll nibble a few carrots, too, and have some of those cherries.”
    “We do have funny meals,” said Peggy. “but I do like them!”
  • Alas! There was no fish that night!
    “There’s some bread left and a packet of currants,” said Peggy. “And some lettuces and margarine. Shall we have those?”
    “This food question is going to be a difficult one,” said Jack thoughtfully. “We’ve plenty of water – we shall soon have a house – but we must have food or we shall starve. I shall catch rabbits, I think.”
  • “I’m so hungry and thirsty now that I believe I could eat all the food we’ve got!” said Mike at last.
    “Yes, we really must have something to eat,” said Jack. “We’ve got plenty of bread and potatoes and vegetables. Let’s cook some broad beans. They are jolly good. Go and look at my fishing-like, Mike, and see if there are any fish on it.”
    There was a fine trout, and Mike brought it back to cook. Soon the smell of frying rose on the air, and the children sniffed hungrily. Fish, potatoes, bread, beans, cherries, and cocoa with milk from one of Jack’s tins. What a meal!
  • Nora made her way through the raspberry canes, round the side of the hill, through the heather and bracken and down to the beach, where all the others were. Peggy had got the fire going well, and was cooking a rabbit that Jack had produced.
    “Where are the raspberries?” asked Jack. “Oh, you’ve got a basketful! Good! Go and skim the cream off the milk in that bowl over there, Nora. Put it into a jug and bring it back. There will be plenty for all of us.”
    Soon they were eating their dinner. Peggy was certainly a good little cook. But the nicest of all were the sweet juicy raspberries with thick yellow cream poured all over them. How the children did enjoy them!
  • Jack got a good deal of fruit and a regular amount of potatoes and turnips from his grandfather’s farm, which still had not been sold. There was always enough to eat, for there were eggs, rabbits, and fish, and Daisy gave them more than enough milk to drink.
    Their seeds grew quickly. It was a proud day when Peggy was able to cut their first batch of mustard and cress and the first lettuce and mix it  into a salad to eat with hard-boiled eggs! The radishes, too, tasted very good, and were so hot that even Jack’s eyes watered when he ate them! Things grew amazingly well and quickly on the island.
  • The wild raspberries ripened by the hundred. Wild strawberries began to appear in the shady parts of the island – not tiny ones, such as the children had often found round about the farm, but big, sweet, juicy ones, even nicer than garden ones. They tasted most delicious with cream. The blackberries grew ripe on the bushes that rambled all over the place, and the children’s mouths were always stained with them, for they picked them as they went about their various jobs.
  • “Mushrooms!” said Jack, in delight, pointing to where to or three grew. “Look – fresh new ones, only grown up last night. Come on! Fill the sack!”
    There were scores in the field. Jack picked the smaller ones, for he knew the bigger ones did not taste so nice and might have maggots in them. In half an hour their sack was full and they slipped away through the sunny fields to where they had moored their boat.
    “What a breakfast we’ll have!” grinned Jack. And they did! Fried mushrooms and fried eggs, wild strawberries and cream!


What Enid Blyton Ate: Mr. Galliano’s Circus

I’ve been devouring Enid Blyton books since I was six years old.

Reading her books always made me hungry, even though I didn’t have the foggiest idea what most of the food she described actually was (ginger beer and potted meat and humbugs – say WHAT). But her books still made me dream of picnics and adventures, midnight feasts and boarding school pranks, magical creatures and enchanted lands.

Image courtesy here

Image courtesy here

What Enid Blyton Ate will be a new feature on my blog that celebrates food in her book by listing all the scrumptiousness a particular book describes.

Let’s begin with Mr. Galliano’s Circus, a book I first read and loved in primary school, and subsequently rediscovered in a bookstore in Bangalore last year.


  • They all had their dinner sitting outside the caravan. The sausages were lovely and so were the potatoes cooked in their jackets and eaten with butter and salt. Jimmy thought he had never had such a lovely dinner in his life. Afterwards there were oranges and chocolate to eat.
  • Breakfast was on the table! There was porridge, bread and marmalade, and hot cocoa. It looked good to Jimmy.
  • “Now, Lotta, if you like to go and make yourself really clean and tidy, you can come and have a meal with us. I’ve got some sardines and a new ginger cake.”
  • Jimmy thought that herrings had never tasted so nice before! It was getting dark now and the fire they were sitting around glowed red and yellow. There were two herrings for everyone, and hot cocoa and bread and butter.
  • Jimmy put on his things and scampered down to the brook. Oooh! The water was cold! He ran back to the caravan as hungry as a hunter, brushed his hair, and squatted down on the grass to eat a piece of bacon and a brown sausage.
  • Mrs. Galliano bought tins of fruit-salad for everyone and the biggest jug of cream that Jimmy had ever seen. It was fun eating fruit-salad and cream in the field for dinner next day. You never knew what was going to happen in a circus!
  • Jimmy ran off. His mother gave him a basket and put into it some sandwiches and a piece of chocolate cake, for Jimmy had not had any breakfast.
  • Sammy (Ed: who was a chimpanzee) was frightened of their shouts. He did not go after them, but he ran up to their bags. He smelt something good inside – the men’s dinner! It was ham sandwiches, buns, and apples. Sammy picked up the food, ran to the hedge and crouched there. He ate everything in the bags, and most of all he liked the apples.
  • “I suppose you’ll soon be getting too grand to play with me any more, Jimmy,” Lotta said one day, as they sat together on the steps of her caravan, eating buttered buns.
  • Mrs. Galliano opened the caravan door and Jimmy went in. It really was a lovely caravan, roomy and comfortable – much, much better than Jimmy’s own. Mr Galliano was sitting at the table eating a plum-pie with cream. He cut Jimmy a big slice, poured cream over it, and pushed it towards the surprised boy. “Eat,” he said.