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What’s Eating Mary?

Best-selling author journeys down the digestive tract.


Chris Hardy Photography

Oakland writer Mary Roach tackles subjects that we often don’t discuss in polite company: bodily decay in Stiff: the Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, and the biology of orgasm in Bonk: the Curious Coupling of Science and Sex. Her best-selling books delight with her wit and audacity. Roach’s latest, Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal, explores all the mysteries of eating, drinking, and digesting.

Q: Why do you research subjects that are kind of gross?

A: I enjoy exploring things that are taboo and asking why they are taboo. I feel there is a value in knowledge and understanding—even those things that people tend to turn away from.


Q: What is the most surprising thing you learned about how we eat?

A: It is unbelievable the range of how many times people chew their food. For some, they’ll only chew 17 times; others will chew 110 times. People’s chewing habits are as personal as their fingerprints.

Q: You went to a prison to research ways digestive tracts are used to smuggle contraband.  

A: I was surprised at how helpful the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation was. I wrote to say I was doing this book and [interested in] the use of the rectum as a storage facility. Their reply was, “We have a huge problem with cell phone smuggling.” It led me to sitting with a guy serving a life sentence for murder, talking about his experiences as a “hooper.”

Courtesy of W. W. Norton & CompanyQ: What is the little-known truth about the death of Elvis Presley?

A: He had a mega colon with a serious malformation and would appear to gain or lose 10 pounds day to day. People wondered whether he was binge eating. He had a terrible constipation problem, and it’s a dangerous situation when someone is pushing really hard. Although he had drugs in his system, his cause of death was listed as a fatal heart arrhythmia.

Q: Did researching the book turn you off certain foods?

A: I haven’t turned away from anything, though I can’t really bring myself to eat tongue served at my favorite taco truck, Taqueria Sinaloa, in Fruitvale. Feeling taste buds on your own tongue—it’s a conceptual thing I can’t get past.  

Gulp is available April 1, and Roach will appear at Notes and Words, a benefit for Children’s Hospital Oakland, on May 18; notesandwords.org.


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