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The Unsettling Truth Mary Roach Wants Us to Accept

Her new book, Gulp, tackles the taboo topic of what happens beyond the plate.

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It's worth mentioning that I read Mary Roach's latest zippy science journey, Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal, entirely on a series of lunch breaks. The book chronicles, in Roach's signature wide-eyed-yet-tongue-in-cheek tone, everything from our first sniff of a meal to its passage through the assorted mixers, tubes, and pumps of our gastrointestinal machinery, wrapping up with its none-too-elegant exit. Gulp, paired with lunch, is an exercise in hyperawareness of one's biology and the strange abstracted quality we apply to food in our daily lives. And it is, from start to finish, a positive delight.

As in her past journeys into the quirky uncharted realms of scientific endeavor — the must-reads Bonk, Stiff, Spook, and Packing for Mars — Roach again turns her eye to the experts who are, often comically at first, absolutely singular in their obsessions. And in Gulp, she visits every corner of the world to dig them up: a professional smeller in Oakland, taste experts specializing in the field of cat kibble in St. Louis, organ-consuming Inuits in the small Canadian island town of Igloolik, the world's foremost expert on spit in the Dutch town of Wageningen, and experts on chewing, crunchiness, stomach juice, noxious flatulence, and "colonial inertia" at various other places near and far.

There is a definite "ick" factor involved; a lot of it is, objectively, as gross as it is quirky. "In the Bay Area, people kind of worship food," said Roach. "It's almost like a religion now — on the plate. But food leaves the plate and no one wants to think about it. It's taboo, really, what happens in the mouth, the colon, the toilet. It's very off-limits for discussion."

Why is spit in our mouths less gross than spit in a cup? What's the difference between seeing a man eating in a restaurant and the unsettling sensation of watching the same man wolf down a sandwich by himself on a park bench? The answer for why humans — in the Bay Area and elsewhere — are grossed out about what goes on beyond the plate might have, Roach said, more to do with a weird denialism we all share about being animals in the first place. "We like to think of ourselves as our minds and our brains," said Roach. "I don't think we like to be reminded that we're just another eating, digesting, excreting sack of guts. Also, to be aware of your body in that way, it's a reminder of your mortality, ultimately."

But, as Roach points out, the taboos work in her favor. While making the science stories — especially their often bizarre historical falterings — funny, she inherently makes them both less gross and less off-limits to readers who may not have a scientific background. She makes them, well, digestible. And reading it over lunch might even be the most ideal setting. After all, as she writes in Gulp, "Lunch is an opening act."

Join Roach on Thursday, May 9, as she reads from Gulp at The Bone Room (1569 Solano Ave., Berkeley). 7 p.m., free. 510-526-5252 or BoneRoomPresents.com

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