Cat Food Tasters and "Okra Snot": A Conversation with Mary Roach

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Fans of food and science, rejoice! Mary Roach's new book, Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal explores the fascinating, at times bizarre, science behind the process of eating. Embracing the topic with infectious curiosity and her signature sense of humor, Roach enters the world of pet food tasters, plunges her arm into the rumen of a living cow, visits a prison to talk to a man with a talent for smuggling contraband in his — well, let's just call it the end of his alimentary canal — and looks into how Elvis really died. 

After spending a week regaling my friends and loved ones with my favorite surprising facts from the book, I sat down with the author to ask her a little more about her adventures.

Why did you choose the alimentary canal as your subject?

I like to write about things that are a little challenging, a little taboo, a little gross occasionally. Humor, science, history — it's my favorite mix. There were a couple things that inspired me along the way. In Packing for Mars, the section on eating and going to the bathroom in space, that was so much fun to explore. There's so much more to it than I had realized; it's such an interesting challenge. So this was kind of a logical follow-up.

Did your work on this book change the way you eat or your feelings about any particular food?

I think the trip to the saliva lab reinforced my horror for what my husband calls "okra snot." The saliva researcher and I collected the two different kinds of saliva and the one that is secreted in the background is very mucousy, with these long strands of mucins. You put something into it and pull it out, and the strands are there, just like when you pull a spoon out of the okra and there's that upsetting strand. So now, in addition to being upsetting, it reminds me of unstimulated saliva. I'm not going to be eating gumbo anytime soon.

In the book you explore some health fads from the past like Fletcherizing (chewing food until it completely liquefies) and fear of autointoxication (fecal self-poisoning). Do you see parallels to popular fad diets today?

Absolutely. I think that people are always looking for a simple, absolute fix, just one thing they can do differently to feel better. Autointoxication and Fletcherizing are still around today, although they're not huge. The huge fads now, of course, are gluten sensitivity and the paleo diet. I think there will always be a way to make money promising to make people feel better. Autointoxication was a crazy fad for daily internal bathing — so weird, but doctors and respected medical figures accepted it. Culture decides what is an illness and sometimes it doesn't really matter what the biochemistry is.

It reminds me of the current trend for juice cleanses and the "ick factor" you talk about in the book. People seem to have a fascination with cleaning out their insides.

There's a lasting, intuitive, not necessarily biologically valid sense that feces is stinky and unclean, so therefore it must be bad for us and let's get it out of us as soon as we can. But the human intestinal tract evolved over millions of years to be very efficient. Your mind may repel at feces, but your body is like, "What is the big deal?"

While researching your books, you get to do so many things that most people don't get to do — and maybe don't want to. What was your favorite experience while you were researching this book?

My afternoon at Avenal State Prison was pretty interesting, but it's kind of a toss-up between that and the afternoon with the fistulated cow. That was the first place I went for the book and I didn't even really know what I was going to do with that information. I just thought, I know I'll be able to do something with this. It was a strange privilege to be able to put your arm into the digesting, composting rumen of a cow. It doesn't hurt the cow; it's just sort of standing around, mindlessly eating its feed. Really, it is hard to imagine what it's like in there. It's more like a composter because there is bacteria breaking down fibrous material, so it's very hot and there's an automatic mixing going on. It's very industrial-feeling.

You also sift through a lot of bizarre scientific studies that asked subjects to do something very unappealing. Of the studies you looked at for this book, which subjects did you feel the most sorry for?

That's an easy one. I felt the sorriest for the folks on the cat food flavor panel. Although they volunteered for it! But it was not just tasting it, they had to move it around in their mouths — and it was both the meat chunks and the gravy portion separately — chew it, and swallow a portion of it. Wet cat food. Those folks definitely got my deepest sympathies.

Thank you, Mary!

Find the book at your local library, independent bookstore, or Amazon: Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal by Mary Roach

Visit the author's website: Mary Roach

(Images: Mary Roach; David Paul Morris)