Alimentary, My Dear | Author Mary Roach’s weird appetite explores digestion.
Accurately dubbed “America’s funniest science writer” by The Washington Post, Oaklander Mary Roach has made it her sworn duty to explore topics that most would turn away from. Her books have delved into what happens to cadavers (Stiff), the afterlife (Spook), sex (Bonk), and space travel (Packing for Mars). Given that kind of warm-up, it was only a matter of time before Roach wrapped her brain cells around a topic most of us who eat take for granted; i.e. what happens to these delectable morsels once they are scooped off the plate and into the body. Oh, the intrigue. The result, Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal, takes readers down the hatch all the way to the bottom. Literally. And, as with any Roach coach, it’s a wild ride. As someone with an often-insatiable appetite for food as well as information, Gulp was right up my alley, so I called Roach.
Paul Kilduff: This whole process of writing Gulp has not turned you off to eating. Is that right?
Mary Roach: Nothing could turn me off to the process of eating. I eat everything.
PK: I understand you have some favorite Oakland restaurants.
MR: I am a huge fan of the Sinaloa Taco Truck down on International. They have these amazing little al pastor tacos that are $1.25 and they are just to die for. I mean, they have lots of other tacos as well, but that’s my favorite taco truck. We go there a lot. Going a little more upscale, I love Boot and Shoe Service on Grand. It’s by the same guy who owns Pizzaiolo in Temescal and so it’s similar. It has fabulous wood oven pizzas but also a lot of other good stuff and just a really cool vibe.
PK: So the mastication process—whether it’s a taco truck or a little more upscale—you’re having a good time?
MR: Yeah, they all require mastication. There is no smoothie place that I go to. I don’t spend a lot of time at Jamba Juice. I like to chew. I like to sink my teeth into something. Crispy is good.
PK: Do you find that instead of saying, “Hey, let’s go get something to eat” you say, “Hey, let’s go and get something to masticate?”
MR: To be honest, no. Although, it is a fun word to say: mastication. But I also enjoy the word bolus [a soft mass of chewed food]. I [have] said bolus more than any other person outside of the oral processing sciences. I think I hold the record.
PK: We live in the Bay Area and it’s just a big gourmet ghetto, let’s face it. We’re just consumed literally with food and thinking about food and where to go and how it’s presented and all the rest. I have some friends that are in that world and they have said to me in all confidence, that they don’t quite get it. Because at the end of the day, no matter how the stuff’s prepared, it’s all coming out the other end as something that we’re not terribly interested in. Is there too much emphasis on what’s going in and not thinking about how it all ends up as the same stuff?
MR: No. I don’t really advocate that people spend a whole lot of time thinking about what goes on when stuff leaves the plate. But I think it’s worth an occasional thought, only because it is really a weird and interesting place, the inside of the alimentary canal. I like to eat food. I don’t necessarily want to talk or read endlessly about it, but I like to eat good food. And anybody who lives in the Bay Area, the bar’s pretty high.
MR: So you get pretty spoiled. It’s a form of entertainment. I mean, that’s what you do when you get together with friends, you try new restaurants and there is always something amazing. So no, I don’t feel like there is too much emphasis. I’m [also] not a cook—that’s the other thing. I think a lot of people who are spending a lot of time reading and talking about food are people who cook really well.
PK: July is when they have the Nathan’s Hot Dog–Eating Contest and, as you mentioned to Jon Stewart, it makes perfect sense for the contestants to swallow the hot dogs whole (maybe they’re taking a couple of bites) because we do this to our food anyway. We turn it into a cylinder in our mouths, right?
MR: That’s right. That’s probably why they chose hot dogs, because it’s a lot easier to do than chicken wings. They can get that big thing down there a lot faster than a chicken wing. It makes sense. To me that’s the grossest thing in the whole book. The hardest thing for me to watch was not a fecal transplant; it’s not anything having to do with the intestines. It is that image of a competitive eater doing his or her thing. I find that really hard to watch. It doesn’t bear a lot of resemblance to what you and I think of as eating.
PK: I’ve always thought there should be sort of a no-time-limit eating contest. A marathon eating contest that just goes on. “Bring in the next roast duck.”
MR: I think it’s very humane to [have] a time limit. I can’t even imagine if they extended it for another couple of minutes.
PK: We’ve all heard the expression, “You are what you eat.” Did writing this book make you feel that any more or less?
MR: I actually was more inclined to say that you are how you eat. For example, we have a stomach and not a rumen [the large first compartment of a cud-chewing mammal’s stomach]. We have a certain length of intestine. We have a particular type of teeth. There are creatures that digest their food outside their body. There are creatures that don’t have any perception of the taste of what they’re eating. There are animals like a cow—there is so little nutrition to what they eat, that they eat all day long. They’re just eating grass. Eating often is just not a wonderful sensual experience as far as I can tell for a lot of the animal kingdom and insect kingdom. I like to leave people more contemplating and feeling grateful for the equipment that they have. That they have a nose that perceives all these unbelievable aromas, which contributes so much to the joy of eating. That we have taste buds and we have this nose that reads flavor and creates this experience of eating and that we can chew our food. We don’t have to swallow it whole like a python. We don’t have to eat all day long. We have a rectum so we don’t have to immediately just dump it out. We can hang on to it for a while till you’re finished with the Scrabble game or whatever the hell you’re doing. You are how you eat and you should be very thankful that you are who you are, and not, say, a sea urchin who is eating through the same hole they’re excreting from.
Birthplace: Hanover, N.H.
Astrological sign: Pisces
Motto: “Lather, rinse, repeat.” “I don’t know what that means and I don’t repeat.”
Book on nightstand: Wild Ones by Jon Mooaleem