There’s been all manner of hullabaloo in the last few years over how food makes its way from wherever it started — ground, tree, plant, pig, chicken, cow — to the kitchen table (or if you’re me, to the deli counter sandwich). And that’s all well and good; I don’t know that I need to be made aware of my chicken’s first name, but there certainly isn’t any harm in knowing some stuff about the things you put in your mouth (that’s what she said).
Mary Roach, however, is concerned with none of that. Whether you’re eating a farm-raised chicken named Sarah — whose hobbies including pecking, clucking and the occasional egg — or spending an evening attempting to house a 40-piece McNugget meal is of no concern to Roach. She cares only about what happens after.
Gulp, like each of Roach’s books before it, is focused on the details of a fascinating and yet under-appreciated element of science, in this case the voyage of sustenance from one’s fork to one’s toilet. As always, Roach has trolled countless original sources to come up with a list of engrossing (and often gross) issues, things like “What’s the relationship between smell and taste? and “Can you eat with your butt?” She tackles each gamely, and her detailed chapters are full of impressive research, valuable consultation with experts, and fabulous juvenile humor. For example:
“Of all the so-called variety meats, none presents a steeper challenge to the food persuader than the reproductive organs. Good luck to Deanna Pucciarelli, the woman who seeks to introduce mainstream America to the culinary joys of pig balls. ‘I am indeed working on a project on pork testicles,’ said Pucciarelli, director of the Hospitality and Food Management Program at—fill my heart with joy!—Ball State University.”
Classic Roach. Gulp is full of tidbits like this, though it doesn’t lack for deeper scientific dives either. And as always, the true stars are the people, the scientists and doctors and researchers who can expound on the diverse intricacies of saliva, or show you a pair of laboratory-issue farting pants. Roach also speaks at length with a prison inmate, who shares with her all the ins and outs (so to speak) of “hooping”: smuggling contraband into the building via your…backdoor. She even talks to Elvis’s doctor. Indeed, another selling point for Gulp: In this book you will learn a great deal about how hard it was for Elvis to go No. 2.
More than any of Roach’s past books, Gulp in this way vies for the gross-out factor. Reading on the train yesterday, I had to angle myself away from the guy next to me, lest he see the diagram of stool types I was examining. At the same time, there’s something hilarious and refreshing about Roach confronting us with all the nasty nitty gritty of something so mundane as eating and going to the bathroom. After covering death, the afterlife, sex, and space, Roach has in Gulp aimed for something more relatable, though under-discussed. …Perhaps in some cases understandably so.
I first fell in love with Mary Roach after reading Stiff, her debut book about the employment of human cadavers in everything from car-crash simulations to body farms. It’s a book that forced me to rethink my historical aversion to nonfiction, and the book that made me decide I want to donate my body to science. Some people may think it weird, but I find something darkly hilarious about imagining my dead self behind the wheel of a road-untested 2065 Toyota Prius, or being the final exam upon which a nervous 22-year-old med student’s anatomy grade depends. (“Don’t worry,” I will think to him or her from the beyond. “I’m pretty sure everything’s in there.”)
Gulp isn’t as a good as Stiff, for reasons I can’t quite put my finger on, but it’s still very good. Roach introduces us to fascinating history, and the most endearing and dedicated people who, for all their social skills, must still have a hard time at cocktail parties (“…and then I inserted the food into the fistulated cow…”) Roach seems like a fun person to know, and reading her books isn’t just learning, but learning through her eyes. She makes science quirky and light, even when it’s gross or sad or even cruel. She manages to find the amazing in everything, and that’s something.
[More book reviews at SorryTelevision.com]