Nonfiction

All guts — and very little glory

 

Mary Roach goes deep inside the digestive system to figure out how and why things work.

 
Gulp. Adventures on the Alimentary Canal. Mary Roach.  Norton.
344 pages. $26.95.
Gulp. Adventures on the Alimentary Canal. Mary Roach. Norton. 344 pages. $26.95.

A lot has been written lately about what we should and should not eat. Far fewer words have been devoted to what our bodies do with what we eat. Mary Roach, author of Stiff and Bonk, sets out to change that with her new book, Gulp; Adventures in the Alimentary Canal, and her efforts are often hilarious.

Gulp is full of strange facts about how we choose, chew, digest and, well, you know, what we do at the other end. Some tidbits are pretty gross, but Roach manages to make them funny, and her asides and footnotes, especially her descriptions of her own reactions to various things, are often laugh out loud, “Honey, you’ve got to hear this” clever.

Take, for example, being offered uncooked narwhal skin as an appetizer.

“My instinct was to refuse it,” she writes. “I’m a product of my upbringing. I grew up in New Hampshire in the 1960s, when meat meant muscle. Breast and thigh, burgers and chops. Organs were something you donated. Kidney was a shape for coffee tables. It did not occur to my people to fix innards for supper, especially raw ones. Raw outards seemed even more unthinkable.”

But like the Mikey of our youth, Roach will apparently try anything. And she liked it.

She also likes to test the common wisdom, finding scientists and experts to explain what really happened, for example, to the famous python found in the Everglades with an alligator sticking out of its stomach. Roach learns that the alligator did not eat his way out, even though the photo seems to indicate that’s what happened. She talks to scientists and experts on pythons and explores other tales of prey eating its way out of predator. She even gets a group of scientists at the University of Nevada to perform some crazy experiments with worms and frogs and an endoscope, just for fun. The upshot? The worm survives inside the frog’s stomach, but does not attempt to chew his way out. In the Everglades, the most likely scenario is a second alligator took a bite out of the python, who had not completely digested the first alligator, and a wound on his stomach hadn’t healed right. The wound ruptured, releasing the quite dead but intact alligator.

“So it wasn’t, at the end of the day, a case of dinner exacting revenge from within,” Roach writes. “Just another dog-eat-dog day in the Everglades.”

From there Roach veers into stomach capacity, competitive eaters, pythons that eat gazelles and why cows have such enormous rumen, the chamber of their stomachs they use to slowly digest grass. The answer is interesting, if you’re into that sort of thing, and Roach finds people who are — and who actually stick stuff in cow stomachs to test how long before the cow extracts food value from, say, prune pits or dryer lint.

“As with hay and grass, it takes a sizable serving of tea towel for a cow to get its RDA — hence the enormous volume of the rumen,” Roach writes.

Then she goes and sticks her arm into a cow rumen, and someone takes a picture of her.

“I look like I’ve seen God. I was in all the way to my armpit and still could not reach the bottom of the rumen,” she writes. “I could feel strong, steady squeezes and movements, almost more industrial than biological.”

Roach’s footnotes and asides are often as delightful as the main text. She writes about an experiment performed in 1855 and again in 1863 to test the theory that a “life force” prevents living things from being digested and explains how Jonah survived in the belly of a whale. The scientists cut holes in the stomachs of dogs, inserted parts of live animals into the hole, a frog leg in one, a rabbit ear in another. And those dog stomachs did what they normally do, digesting even as the rabbit and the frog continued living. Roach notes in a footnote that the wife of one of the scientists discovered what he was doing and was not pleased.

“Marie Francoise ‘Fanny’ Bernard — whose dowry had funded the experiments — was aghast,” Roach writes. “In 1870 she left him and inflicted her own brand of cruelty; she founded an anti-vivisection society. Go Fanny.”

Gulp is basically about spit and gastric juices and poop. It also delves into the mysteries of Elvis’ megacolon, the early 20th century fad of thorough chewing, the San Francisco Chronicle editor who was married to Sharon Stone and bitten by a Komodo dragon — and survived both — and a prisoner doing life who became adept at “hooping,” sticking contraband in the place no one wants to look for it. He reports that, once inserted, the package of cigarettes or razor blades or the cellphone “finds its spot.”

Gulp is not a book for the squeamish, but if you’ve ever wondered how much you can eat before your stomach actually explodes or what it would feel like to be eaten alive, Roach has thoroughly researched the answers.

Susannah Nesmith is a writer in Miami.

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