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'Gulp' author Mary Roach discusses her foray into the 'taboo' realm of the digestive system

Mary Roach's new book 'Gulp' focuses on the sometimes unsavory topic of digestion.

By Staff Writer / May 2, 2013

Mary Roach is also the author of books such as 'Bonk' and 'Packing for Mars.'

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It’s not often that readers find themselves laughing over footnotes in a science book.

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But it's hard to resist when author Mary Roach, in her digestive system exploration titled "Gulp," notes that the uvula's less-known full name, "and my pen name should I ever branch out and write romance novels, is Palatine Uvula." Or when she points out that a possible World War II slogan to get people to eat meat wouldn't work because "Food Fights for Freedom" would "seem to inspire cafeteria mayhem more than personal sacrifice."

Roach has tackled other scientific topics in books including "Stiff," an examination of cadavers, and "Packing for Mars," an exploration of what it takes to survive in a spaceship, including a look at how astronauts deal with some of the less attractive bodily functions. In "Gulp," her discussion of the digestive system also takes her to some pretty unusual places – everywhere from the office of a saliva specialist to a conversation with Elvis Presley's former doctor about Presley's bowel troubles.

In an interview with the Monitor, Roach talked about "Gulp," how she felt about sampling unusual foods for research, and why her dinner conversation these days sometimes annoys her companions. Here are some excerpts of our conversation.

Q: What made you decide to write a book about the digestive system?

A: The proper question should be, What took so you so long? Parts of "Packing for Mars" led me to it. It's such a taboo topic.
 
 Q: When you first began writing, did you consciously try to make the scientific information in your books accessible to non-science people, or is your informal writing style simply the way that you tackle any topic?

A: I started out my writing career writing for this magazine which later became InHealth, which later became Health, and there was a call for articles about topics of general interest to people explaining sort of how it worked.

That's sort of how I began writing. So it wasn't a conscious strategy, but that's just where I stayed.
 
Q: In the book, especially at the beginning when you're doing the olive oil sampling, you eat a lot of offbeat foods. Have you always been an adventurous eater, or were you just trying to get through the eating for research purposes?
 
A: When I was a kid, I hated everything. I was really skinny, and I'd have a milkshake with an egg in it. Growing up, I ate like five different foods. I was not an adventurous eater. But as soon as I left home, that all changed and from that point on, I've been a pretty enthusiastic eater of new and strange food.
 
Q: At one point in the book, you point out that offal was recently used on a cooking show for a challenge. You predict that offal will become popular. It seems like the less-used parts of an animal are now being found in high-class cuisine.
 
A: It was nice to see that theory actually play out. I think the last step in that chain [will be] where people begin to cook it in their home or buy it in stores or buy microwavable things. That's when I'll really be surprised, kidneys showing up in the Trader Joe's microwavables.
 
Q: After studying the digestive system and the positive and negative effects food can have, did you find yourself changing your diet at all?

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