It’s not often that readers find themselves laughing over footnotes in a science book.
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?
A: I don't think I changed as an eater, I think I changed as a dining companion. I became a really annoying person to go out to eat with, because I'd be like, "Well, when you take a sip of wine, pay attention because you'll feel this gush of saliva coming in." People were like, "Please, can you stop?"
Q: You warn readers in your book when things are coming that are a little unpleasant. If you're discussing these topics at events or book signings, do people get grossed out, or do they know what they're in for?
A: I was at the San Francisco Jewish Community Center and I think sometimes the audience isn't necessarily Mary Roach people but they're JCC subscribers. The guy who runs the program said he was looking at people in the audience and there was one woman who picked up the edge of her shirt and put it over her mouth or something as if she was going to throw up. So apparently there were people looking a little stricken.
Usually the people who show up at these events are people who know my work and come knowing what to expect or come on an empty stomach.
Q: Some of your questions to scientists were a little unusual. How was the reception from the science community as a whole to your investigations?
A: They were delighted. The exception being, I think Michael Levitt would rather talk about something else by now. [Levitt is an expert in gastrointestinal gas.] He was nice enough to talk to me, but I think he'd rather talk about some of his other work.
The guy, [ecologist] Dick Tracy with the mealworms and the stomach, the whole experiment was really fun. [Roach watched as Tracy tested to see if a mealworm could eat its way out of another animal's stomach.]
Even Rodriguez [the fake name of a prisoner whom Roach questioned about his smuggling of objects in his rectum] enjoyed talking about his rectal skills. Apparently that's a normal topic of conversation [in prison].
Q: In the section on taste, when you talked about snack foods and artificial flavoring, the topics are similar to Michael Moss's new book, "Salt Sugar Fat." Have you had a chance to check that out at all?
A: I haven't had time, I would like to very much. I had thought about writing more about food science and corporate food science, but I ended up looking more at the equipment rather than the food.
The other thing is that it's a difficult world to get access to. You've got to get in touch with people who used to work for the company – there's all kinds of nondisclosure agreements and lawsuits, so I have to applaud him that he was available to get in and get access. Very impressive.
I'm so glad that book is doing well. It's a great project and I'm glad he did it.
Q: Do you have any new projects lined up?
I have an idea that may or may not pan out that I'm looking into. But I'm still going!