In most cases, an interview subject suffering from a bad cough wouldn’t be an ideal situation. But it’s oddly appropriate when the subject is Mary Roach, who can excuse herself with, “Speaking of mucoid substances, I’m launching some of them into your ear right now.”
Roach has built her career on her delight in probing aspects of the science of the human body that most people would rather just ignore. In “Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers,” she followed the body through its many strange post-mortem pathways; in “Packing For Mars,” she uncovered the less glorified side of the space program through zero-gravity toilets and long-term bedrest.
In her latest, “Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal,” Roach trains her sardonic, steel-stomached curiosity on the science of eating and digestion, finding laboratories where pet food is taste-tested, windows are opened onto a human stomach (literally), and those aforementioned mucoid substances are gathered and examined.
“It was the last taboo that I haven’t covered,” Roach says of her latest endeavor. “Once you take food off the table and put it into your body, it becomes an object of revulsion. People get very flipped-out and disgusted, so it’s yet another topic that I thought it would be fun to pull apart and explore.”
As with “Bonk,” her book about the science of sex, Roach is particularly fascinated by the way in which subjects that give us such pleasure have so many aspects we find utterly repulsive. “We have a little bit of disgust for all of our biological processes,” she says. “I don't think that eating is unique in that way – if you strip away love and lust and all the higher trappings of sex,and you just take it down to what the bodies are doing and the substances involved, it becomes icky. Anytime you peel away the skin and reveal the fact that we’re just big bags of digesting, secreting, pumping, gloppy, sticky, icky stuff, it’s upsetting.”