On this day in 1822 Alexis St Martin, a Canadian fur trapper who was delivering furs to the fur trading post on Mackinac Island, was accidentally shot in the stomach at close range by a muzzle-loaded shotgun loaded with buckshot. This “happy” accident revolutionized the understanding of the workings of the human digestive system. St Martin was treated by a U.S. Army physician and surgeon, William Beaumont, who had seen such wounds as a doctor during the war of 1812, so he had considerable experience. He did not have a university education, but had been through a doctor’s apprentice program and then enlisted in the army. Beaumont did his best to treat the wound, but despite the fact that St Martin was a fit and healthy 20 year old, he was not expected to live. The shot had blown a hole in the skin, destroyed part of his ribs and muscle, and left a hole in his stomach. People did not survive such injuries in those days.
However, contrary to such a dire prognosis, he did live, and eventually his stomach and intestines returned to normal function over a period of weeks. When the wound healed itself, the edge of the hole in St Martin’s stomach had attached itself to the edge of the hole in his skin, creating a permanent gastric fistula (aperture into the stomach). There was very little scientific understanding of digestion at the time and Beaumont recognized the opportunity he had in St. Martin. He could literally watch the processes of digestion by dangling food on a string into St. Martin’s stomach.
To grasp the significance of this event it is important to distinguish between anatomy and physiology. Anatomy is the study of the bits that make up the body. Anatomy can be studied using dissected cadavers, and was at a reasonably sophisticated level in 1822. Physiology, by contrast, concerns how the bits work, and the facts of digestive physiology at that point were virtually unknown: cadavers don’t eat food. Up until that time it was believed that the stomach was a sort of grinding mechanism. Beaumont was able to show that the process of digestion, while involving a certain amount of movement, was primarily chemical. He experimented with St Martin off and on for 11 years. In 1833 he published Experiments and Observations on the Gastric Juice and the Physiology of Digestion, for which he achieved a degree of fame.
St Martin allowed the experiments to be conducted, not as an act to repay Beaumont for keeping him alive, but rather because Beaumont had the illiterate man sign a contract to work as a servant (at the time St Martin was indentured to another man, and Beaumont paid the indenture). Beaumont recalls the chores St Martin did: “During this time, in the intervals of experimenting, he performed all the duties of a common servant, chopping wood, carrying burthens, etc. with little or no suffering or inconvenience from his wound.” Although these chores were not bothersome, some of the experiments were painful to St. Martin. Eventually he was able to leave, and despite entreaties in later life from Beaumont, did not return.
Alexis St. Martin died at St-Thomas de Joliette, Quebec, in 1880 at the age of 79. His family delayed his burial and kept his body under guard to prevent “resurrectionists” from digging it up to dissect. He had the most famous stomach in the world. Ironically, St Martin lived a lot longer than Beaumont who died at 68 as the consequence of a fall on icy steps.
In honor of St Martin’s stomach I am giving you a tripe recipe. Tripe is, of course, the lining of the stomach of ruminants, and I am something of an aficionado. I’ve collected a little over 4,000 recipes from all over the world, and made a good stab at trying all of them in the course of 10 years. Sometimes I make 8 or 10 at a time. Tripe is extremely popular worldwide, although it is no longer very well liked in Britain and the U.S. Given the tripe and onions I had to suffer through as a child, I can understand. But tripe can be absolutely ambrosial if cooked properly. Here is a recipe for deep fried tripe tacos from Mexico that I defy anyone to push aside after tasting them. The tripe must be precooked, which is the slightly unpleasant side. Place the tripe in a heavy pot, cover with water and bring to a simmer. Cook until al dente (about one hour). It is very important to check the tripe periodically. It should be the same consistency as al dente pasta. The odor of cooking can be cut significantly by putting a teaspoon of vanilla extract in the cooking water and covering the pot with a tight fitting lid (and turning on the stove fan). This recipe makes 4 tacos, which is enough for one, if the “one” is me. Obviously this recipe can be doubled or tripled etc. Just be sure to cook the tripe in small batches. I don’t usually have an accompaniment but, of course, these tacos can be served as part of a larger Mexican meal with soup, guacamole, rice etc.
Deep Fried Tripe Tacos
6 oz (170 g) cooked tripe
4 small flour tortillas
Tomatoes, cilantro, lettuce, onions, and radishes for garnish
Cooking oil for deep frying
Chop all the garnishes finely and place in individual bowls.
Cut the tripe into small strips approximately 1 in x ¼ in (2.5 cm x .6 cm). Size is not critical, but do not make them too small.
Pat the tripe pieces dry on paper towels.
Heat the oil in a deep fryer, or a heavy skillet with about 1 in (2.5 cm) oil to 325° F (160° C). If you do not have a thermometer, check by placing one piece of tripe in the oil. It should bubble briskly immediately.
Fry the tripe in two batches until golden brown. Remove with a slotted spoon or open mesh ladle (best).
Drain the tripe on a rack with a cookie sheet lined with paper towels underneath.
Place ¼ of the tripe in the center of each tortilla and serve on a platter. Garnish the tripe to taste and sprinkle each with lime juice. Fold the tortilla over in half and eat. You MUST use your hands, this is street food.
Yield: 4 tacos