Acclaimed science writer Mary Roach fell in love with human anatomy in her fifth-grade science class when Mrs. Claflin introduced her to a “headless, limbless modeled plastic-torso, ” and got her hands on model organs that “fit together like puzzle pieces, tidy as wares in a butcher’s glass case.” This introduction, along with the findings from a 1968 study on humans’ intolerance to bacteria-ridden food and an evident personal curiosity for the scientific taboo help lead to “Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal,” Roach’s latest book.
Roach’s witty and conversational voice allows “Gulp” to read like a novel rather than a science book. Instead of being taught about our digestive system we are told about it. And, for anyone who’s ever flunked an exam on the periodic table or failed to locate the pancreas of a dissected frog, there’s a huge difference.
Readers watch the dogs, whose eating habits are studied at the Palatability Assessment Resource Center, roam freely throughout the facility. The saliva lab with a poster of Gaudi on the wall and sparkling clean windows becomes more than just a bizarre place where Erika Silletti uses tampons to collect stranger’s spit. We taste the silicon, “rubbery white cubes the size of salad croutons,” that Roach eats at the Restaurant of the Future, “the cafeteria at Wageningen University where hidden cameras allow researchers to gauge how, say, lightening affects purchasing behavior, or whether people are more likely to buy bread if you let them slice it themselves.”
Roach doesn’t necessarily take readers on a journey through their bodies. Instead, she takes readers on a road trip around the world with her. She holds your hand as she answers absurd and practical questions about your cat’s dried food preferences, the smell of your saliva, and your chewing habits. Questions that, before picking up “Gulp,” you probably never seriously considered or even cared to find the answers to.
As Roach is quick to point out, “Gulp” is “not a practical health book.” Thank goodness because, if it were, you’d have given it as much thought as your junior high exam on the periodic table. (Erin Nederbo)
“Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal”
By Mary Roach
W. W. Norton, 352 pages, $26.95