How do competitive eaters consume so much food in one sitting? (It involves serious training.) Why doesn’t the stomach digest itself? (Trick question: It actually does.) Could Jonah really have survived in the belly of a whale? (No way.) And how do people smuggle contraband into prison? (Hint: balloons and stretching.)
In her new book, Gulp, acclaimed science writer Mary Roach explores the process of eating and digestion. Each quirky, fascinating chapter--think “eating yourself to death” and “the science of chewing”--provides endless fodder for cocktail (not dinner!) parties. But perhaps more to the point: In the era of knowing everything about what goes into your body, it’s awfully refreshing to learn what your body then does with all that food.
We recently caught up with Roach to learn more about her totally bizarre research, which included sampling rancid olive oil, masticating whale blubber and meeting with one of the world’s preeminent flatus experts.
PureWow: You eat a lot of strange things over the course of the book. Did anything really make you gag?
Mary Roach: Nothing has ever made me gag, but I don’t think I would drink my own saliva. Stimulated saliva is 99 percent water. A stimulated sample may look clean and pure, but outside the mouth it tastes really, really vile. You’d think it wouldn’t, considering we swallow our own spit all the time. I kept pushing Erika Silletti--the world’s foremost expert on spit--to drink it, but she refused with a sound “No.”
PW: Did your research lead you to become more aware of how you eat?
MR: I went through a phase--particularly when writing about “oral processing”--when I would try to pay attention to what was in my mouth. I’d ask myself, “Is this the ideal decibel level of crunch in chips?” or “The minimum number of chews required to ready a McVitie’s Digestive biscuit for swallowing is eight. I bet I can do it in less!” After a while, though, this self-reflection no longer interfered with how I ate.
PW: Humor us. What’s the coolest thing you learned while writing Gulp?
MR: What was most mind-blowing to me was how much food appreciation takes places in your nose. During my time with a professional sensory analyst, I learned that you smell food not only when you inhale but also when you exhale. Aromas waft into your nose while you’re eating, which helps increase your appreciation of both food and wine.