Mis-Conceptions about a Vegetable and Turkey
By Dr. Brian Greuel, Department of Biology
by Christina Bunker
Some of the most valuable lessons of life can be learned from seemingly mundane day-to-day activities. I would like to share with you two experiences I have had with food that have left an indelible mark on my memory and have helped me to grow as a husband, as well as a scientist.
The first formative experience happened one day nearly 18 years ago during the last year of my postdoctoral fellowship in Toronto. And this wasn't just any day either. It was the day before my very first job interview for a college teaching position. As I made my usual morning pilgrimage to the rest room, I had no warning that anything was awry. In fact, I felt quite fit. But as I looked down at the crimson-colored water in the toilet bowl before me, I was overcome by the stark reality that I was hemorrhaging on the inside. "My God!" I said! "What am I going to do? I can't be hemorrhaging while on a flight to California or during a job interview, no less! I've got to do something. Quick, what can I do? Um, I'm in a research institute at a hospital. Yes, that's it... Go to the hospital emergency room right away." Moments later, I found myself laying on a gurney in the ER with a cold metal scope being forced up my posterior, providing a feeling of fullness that has yet to be surpassed. "Can't they at least warm these things up first before they use them?" I thought.
The resident twisted and turned the scope to observe every square inch of the inside of my (you-know) as I laid there in agony. Finally, he said, "Well, I don't see any bleeding, just some red material inside." "That must be a blood clot," I thought. "I recommend that we do a colonoscopy next," the resident said. "That should tell us the answer." A colonoscopy takes at least a day to get ready for - and I didn't have that kind of time. It would have to wait until I returned from my job interview. I left the ER quite convinced that I had a tumor growing in my intestines, and I prayed that it wouldn't metastasize before I returned from my interview.
Later that night as I began to pack for my trip, still a bit distracted by the new health-related concerns, my wife, Jane, reported the alarming news that she, too, was hemorrhaging. "What?" I said. "I've heard of cancer spreading from one site to another within the same person's body, but never from one person to another! What's going on here? Surely there must be a rational explanation." We sat there puzzling together over this latest development, and soon my wife (who really is quite brilliant) had the answer. "It's the beets," she said. "We both ate beets yesterday." "But I've eaten beets many times before," I said, "and they never caused me to hemorrhage!" "No, these were FRESH beets, not beets from a can," she replied. "They have more pigment in them." Now, you'd think that someone with a Master's degree in Plant Biology, not to mention a Ph.D. in molecular biology, would have remembered that beets contain betalain pigments, water-soluble pigments that impart on them a reddish purple color. But how was I to know that some of the pigments were cooked out of canned beets and that fresh beets would cause this alarming result? I don't normally do the cooking in our household! This isn't the only time that a food item would cause me some momentary bewilderment.
Fast forward now to last Christmas as we are about to enjoy a very special Christmas Eve meal together as a family. The table was set, the food was spread before us, and I was setting about my traditional ritual of carving the turkey. As I carefully sliced the white and dark meat off the bone, I noticed something a bit peculiar protruding between the legs of the bird. "Hmm, this is odd," I said. "It looks like a second set of legs!" I began to dissect that part of the turkey to investigate further and was alarmed to find the carcass of another small bird inside of our evening meal. "How did that get there?" I exclaimed. "Maybe this is a MUTANT turkey. This could be the first documented example of a turkey that was pregnant with a turkey fetus instead of laying fertilized eggs like other turkeys and birds do to reproduce. I could write this up for publication!"
After a moment, reality set in. "No," I thought, "that's impossible. Mammals have internal development, not birds." I was drawing from my expertise in developmental biology, you see. "There's got to be a rational explanation, and it has something to do with abnormal development. Could it be an undeveloped twin perhaps that remained inside the larger turkey?" I wondered aloud about my discovery, and the possible explanations, and soon Jane and our two adult children joined me in the effort to solve this mystery. Possible ideas were brought up and one by one were summarily dismissed by the developmental biologist for lack of scientific merit. Finally, Jane said matter-of-factly, "Maybe it's because I stuffed a Cornish hen inside the turkey before I put it in the oven." That certainly put a quick stop to further speculation! And, needless to say, my family had a great laugh at my expense.
Well, I learned three important lessons from these experiences with food. First, communication in marriage is absolutely essential. Now, whenever we have beets at home, I always make sure to ask, "Are these fresh beets?" to which Jane usually replies, "Yep, they're fresh from the can." Second, I was reminded again of the importance as a scientist of seemingly irrelevant empirical observations. You see, I saw that Cornish hen earlier in the day thawing on a pan in the sink, but I never made the connection with what I observed stuffed inside the turkey until my wife revealed her deed. Finally, never underestimate the potential of your life-long helpmate to make you look like an absolute dim-wit just to keep you humble - all in love, of course!