REVIEW: Gulp by Mary Roach
“America’s funniest science writer” (Washington Post) takes us down the hatch on an unforgettable tour. The alimentary canal is classic Mary Roach terrain: the questions explored in Gulp are as taboo, in their way, as the cadavers in Stiff and every bit as surreal as the universe of zero gravity explored in Packing for Mars. Why is crunchy food so appealing? Why is it so hard to find words for flavors and smells? Why doesn’t the stomach digest itself? How much can you eat before your stomach bursts? Can constipation kill you? Did it kill Elvis? In Gulp we meet scientists who tackle the questions no one else thinks of—or has the courage to ask. We go on location to a pet-food taste-test lab, a fecal transplant, and into a live stomach to observe the fate of a meal. With Roach at our side, we travel the world, meeting murderers and mad scientists, Eskimos and exorcists (who have occasionally administered holy water rectally), rabbis and terrorists—who, it turns out, for practical reasons do not conceal bombs in their digestive tracts.
Like all of Roach’s books, Gulp is as much about human beings as it is about human bodies.
When I finished the current book I’d been reading at the end of December and realized that my next one would probably carry me through to be my first finished book of the new year, I thought a while and then picked one I was pretty sure would get me started on the right foot, eg one I was fairly sure I’d enjoy. I’m superstitious that way. At this point in my Mary Roach reading, I’d follow her anywhere so “Gulp,” the first of her unread books I have on my ereader, it was.
The nose? The mouth? The stomach? Anyone could write about those. It takes Mary Roach to write about the “other mouth,” “flatus,” and rabbit poo in an entertaining yet (for the most part) socially acceptable way. From top to, literally, bottom. From outside to inside to outside again. The book covers a range of things from “I thought I knew all about that” to “I’ve never heard of this before” to “mah gawd.” The chapter titles are almost as amusing as the chapter contents. Hmmm, perhaps I shouldn’t use the word “contents.” The footnotes are the bomb. Definitely do not skip those.
With so many of the scientists and specialists she talks to, one gets the impression that they are both delighted and somewhat amazed that anyone wants to know something about their specialized niche of knowledge. Spit and “food boluses” aren’t exactly stimulating dinner conversation regardless of the irony of both being in play during a dinner conversation.
Imagine. There is a Dutch scientist who has devoted the last 8 years of his professional life to “a deeper understanding of crispy-crunchy.” I’d volunteer for that study. Crispness and crunch are beloved by humans because they signify fresh and healthy. Well the junk food we eat might be fresh but healthy? … maybe not. I also salute Stephen Secor,a snake digestion expert at the University of Alabama, who must have loved providing all the varied info on snake belches. Yes, really.
Saliva – it’s your friend. Don’t sneer at it even if it’s outside of your own body. Most people think it disgusting once it escapes the mouth. But it could be a great stain pre-treatment. The chapter on binge eaters and bulimics is, quite frankly, rather frightening. The one on dinner eating the diner made me have to put the book down a few times in order to get through it. Do not read shortly before or after a meal. I also dare anyone to read the chapter on chewing and not go watch themselves in a mirror.
We should all be eating like Inuit – serve me up some reindeer eyes and bone marrow – it’s your meat and your veg all in one! Hmmm, or maybe not. I would try muktuk, though. It sounds delish. Let’s not use the term “organ meats” or even worse “offal” while trying to change what we’re willing to eat. Use “variety meats!” Doesn’t that sound happy? Perhaps we need to go back to the patriotic pledge system they attempted during WWII. But to really change dietary habits, we need to get pregnant women to try new foods – make friends with them! – so their babies are used to it from the womb.
I’ll be rereading the chapter on pet food the next time I’m in Petsmart debating whether my feline overlords would prefer fish flavor or chicken. I also need to start critically sniffing my olive oil. Wine? I’ll admit I’m hopeless at ranking them by any other method then the “I’ll finish this glass” vs “where can I spit this out” scale.
Whether the term is “hooped” or “keistered,” rectally smuggling something is gross. Yet it’s horrifically fascinating to learn just what people, usually prisoners, are capable of fitting in their “prison wallet.” Roach’s interview with a murderer about the process and how they deal with delaying “the call of nature” is even more interesting. One can see why constipation is a common complaint among prisoners. And why it’s not among anxious drug mules. Of course shoddy drug muling can lead to articles in American Journal of Forensic Medicine and Pathology titled “Fatal Heroin Body Packing.” ‘Nuff said.
I swear I will resist typing “pyroflatulence” into YouTube and I find myself pathetically grateful that there are such specific medical terms as “inflammable eructation” which can be used to describe what must be an awful experience if one should happen to have a lit match, a mustache and pyloric strictures.
Flatus must truly strike a chord in most people since there are three! chapters devoted to it. Well, let’s be honest and admit we all do it though I’m not sure if birds do it or bees do it or even sophisisticated fleas do it too. Just remember what Benjamin Franklin advised his son to do and how Martin Luther chased off the devil. The image of rodents in “leather gear” for the autocoprophagia (don’t google that unless you really want to know) studies had me in stitches. The information about the Mayans certainly wasn’t in the National Geographic DVD I recently streamed on Netflix, either.
I love that Roach asks the kind of questions that most of us would either be too shy, too embarrassed to ask or would only think of later after the chance was gone. She makes the subject so deliciously – yes, that was a conscious word choice – fun, so readable, so interesting. Yet it must also be said that a lot of the people Roach interviews are brimming with robust humor. So read “Gulp” and discover all kinds of things you never knew you never knew and always remember this – gut microbes are your partner in health. B+