Roach has previously gained praise from the science community and the literary community alike for her books Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers; Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife; Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex; and Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void. She's become known for tackling subjects no one really wants to talk about, and her latest book is no exception.
Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal is gross, icky, bizarre, at times nausea-inducing and totally hysterical in both a genuine and an uncomfortable laughter sort-of-way. It gives readers insight into what happens to delicious dishes once they leave the fork and enter the mouth. If you've ever wondered what the nose has to do with taste, why your stomach doesn't digest itself or how many things can be stuffed up a rectum, this book is for you.
If that sounds like a bit more than you can handle, Roach has a reminder for you:
"I think that we kind of prefer to think of ourselves as minds rather than bodies," she says. "Biologically speaking, a restaurant is organisms taking in nutrition and processing it. People don't like to be reminded that they're organisms with a limited lifespan who have to take in other organisms in order to survive.
Well, when you put it that way...
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Roach initially became interested in the subject of digestion while she was doing research for her book Packing for Mars. She was reading about scientists' research into possible means of feeding people during a long journey through space, and she began to think of eating not as sensual pleasure, but as a means of survival. Gulp is the product of this curiosity, and Roach says it took about two and a half years to research and write, during which time she underwent a colonoscopy without sedation (so she could watch), talked to an expert at hiding things in his anal cavity at Avinal State Prison and observed a bonafide medical fecal transplant (yes, that's a thing). None of that was the least bit bothersome to her, though.
"For me, the most difficult thing to watch is footage of competitive eaters," Roach says. "It's the look on their faces. They're pushing the food in their mouths, and they have this blank awful look on their face. I think, to me, that's the most difficult thing to see. The fecal transplant wasn't particularly objectionable. It sounds like it would be upsetting and gross, but it's not."
Of course not, because fecal transplants are for science and to help people, and competitive eating is just...well...grotesque.
As with each book she writes, Roach gains a lot of knowledge along the way.
"I had no idea that Elvis Presley had bowel issues," she says. "And the size of his colon at his autopsy was shocking. And you know, the nose was really interesting. That whole world of experiencing food through smell. You hear that but you don't really appreciate it until you spend some time with someone who has a great nose."
She also thoroughly enjoyed visiting the state prison where, she says, "I had so many questions that had nothing to do with this man's rectum." Imagine that.
A few more of her favorite facts: "When you're embarrassed, your stomach blushes too," and "The nose has erectile tissue. When you have a cold, the nose has a nose boner."
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Her takeaway from the years of research and writing isn't altogether pleasant, though. She now catches herself thinking about the role of her saliva and her chewing while she's dining, and watching those around her eat with a scientific fascination. The chef may be watching from the kitchen to see how diners enjoy the food; Roach is watching to see how they take in nutrients.
"Food is science," she says. "And cooking is science. And eating is science."
For Roach, it's difficult to separate one from the other. But that lust for knowledge is what makes her work all the more engrossing...and gross.
Mary Roach will be at Brazos Bookstore on April 29 at 7 p.m. Visit the Brazos Bookstore website to purchase tickets for $15. The price of a ticket includes a free paperback edition of Gulp.