Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal

  • Mary Roach
  • W.W. Norton and Company
  • 348 pp.

The author leads the reader around the globe to meet people fascinated by the intricacies of digestion.

I am never, ever alone when I eat. I either dine with family and friends, or I eat with a book propped open next to my plate. Some say it’s a bad habit, but it’s one I haven’t been able to break.

Until now.

The latest work from science writer Mary Roach does not make a charming dinner companion. Roach is clear about her book’s intent from the first pages: this is not a book about eating that will whet the appetite, as might a cookbook or the latest edition of Gourmet magazine. 

“Yes, men and women eat meals. But they also ingest nutrients. They grind and sculpt them into a moistened bolus that is delivered, via a Rockettes chorus line of sequential contractions, into a self-kneading sac of hydrochloric acid and then dumped into a tubular leach field, where it is converted into the most powerful taboo in human history.”

To be sure, not all of the chapters of Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal have a high “ick” factor. Gulp follows the path of our food from nose to mouth and then downward to the logical…outcome. It’s not until that path crosses from small intestine to large that the discussion becomes truly unsavory. In the meantime, Roach leads us around the globe to learn from people fascinated by the intricacies of digestion. 

In California, we accompany Roach as she auditions to be an apprentice taster of olive oils. Ultimately, she doesn’t make the cut, but we learn that there is a flavor lexicon for most foods, if one’s nose is discerning enough to need it. Fortunately, noses can be trained. Unfortunately, there is also a lexicon to describe the varied odors of flatulence.

Also in California, we visit with wardens and an inmate in Avenal State Prison to learn the ins and outs (sorry) of “hooping.” Not familiar with the term? Perhaps its alternate moniker will help: “keistering.” Yes, this chapter details the profits (and perils) of smuggling contraband into prisons, across borders and—in one painfully descriptive passage—onto airplanes. 

Near St. Louis, animals at the Palatability Assessment Resource Center help pet food makers understand canine and feline food preferences, and how the palates of pet owners affect the foods they choose for their animal companions. In Memphis, Elvis Presley’s personal physician discusses with Roach the theory that The King died of “defecation-associated sudden death;” he confirms that Elvis’s autopsy revealed a colon “two to three times normal size.”

Human food preferences—and prejudices—are teased apart during Roach’s visit to an Inuit community in Canada to learn about the cultural and nutritive value of organ meats.  For saliva, it’s off to the Netherlands. “I am honestly curious about saliva, but I am also curious about obsession and its role in scientific inquiry,” explains Roach. Perhaps you thought your mom was crazy for scrubbing the smudge of jelly from your face with saliva; but in fact the digestive enzymes in saliva are also the active ingredients in commercial laundry and dishwashing detergents.

It’s fun to notice how many of the scientists and other experts Roach interviews have names that hilariously match their areas of interest. Take, for example, flatulence researcher Colin Leakey, in England. There’s also chemist Luis Spitz, to whom she was referred for an answer regarding saliva, and detergent industry consultant Kevin Grime. Finally, the director of the Hospitality and Food Management Program at Ball State University (you can’t make this stuff up) is “working on a project on pork testicles.” It’s no wonder Roach seems to relish her research.

If your sensibilities are easily offended, it’s best to skip chapter 17, which opens on location at a “gut microflora party.” Herein Roach describes a serious medical advance: the transplantation of colon bacteria from a donor with copious amounts of the healthy ones to a patient with, for example, chronic infection caused by the bacterium Clostridium difficile. The process involves a fecal donation, a blender, soil sieves, and a colonoscope. This is precisely the point where I stopped eating while reading Gulp.

But seriously, folks. Roach’s trademark sneaky wit and absurdly detailed footnotes make Gulp a page-turner, not a stomach turner. Just don’t invite it to brunch.

Susan Young is a yoga teacher and health writer. She lives with her family in Montgomery Village, MD.

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