30 May 2013

5 Questions for Mary Roach

Mary Roach is awesome and she writes the best books: Stiff, Bonk, Packing For Mars, Spook approach their various subjects

with good humor and wide-eyed curiosity. Her new book, Gulp, bypasses all the agriculture policy and culinary skills we usually write about on this blog and begins the tale in the bolus stage and follows food on the journey through the body. This is very much the third act following Farm to Table.

The book looks at salvia, posits theories on the real reason Elvis passed and digresses on other alimentary facts. Ms. Roach, who just finished an epic book tour, was kind enough to take time to answer 5 questions for us via email from her home in California.

Everyone Digests. But talking about food after it’s ingested is viewed as somewhere between transgressive to taboo. Why are people so reluctant to talk about the post-chew experience?

Humans don’t like to be reminded that they too are big, moist chewing, digesting, belching, excreting, mating, dying sacks of organs.  We like to think of ourselves as minds, personalities.  We tend to turn away from the traits we share with animals. Or that’s my theory, anyway.

Who was your favorite specialist of the digestive sciences you interviewed for this book?   

I adored Dr. Silletti, the beautiful Italian saliva researcher.  I loved the passion she had for this reviled and unloved substance, I loved the juxtaposition of beauty and spit.  I loved that I could not persuade her — even her! — to drink a small beaker of her own stimulated saliva (which is 99 percent water)…

I was surprised to learn humans cycle through only thirty different foods in their diets. Working with a great farmers market and priding myself on being a adventurous eater, I kept track of different foods over a four day period, certain that I would easily top thirty. I finally had to eat a bag of cool ranch dorotios* to get over the mark. When you learned this, did you track and see how long it took you to reach thirty?

I had that on my to-do list, alongside “Spit into yogurt to see how watery it gets as enzymes break down starch.”  Never got around to it.

You just spent weeks on the road promoting your book: Bagels, craft food, airport sandwiches, yet your research concludes the benefits of dietary fiber may be overstated.  Did you learn other facts about digestion that seem counterintuitive?

Everyone should eat  heaps of fruits and vegetables and legumes — but not just because of fiber  Because of vitamins and other nutrients.  And fiber — fiber’s good too.  Fiber just didn’t turn out to be the miraculous cancer-preventer that it was touted to be back in the 80s.

You wrote you enjoyed rancid olive oil. Confession, I like Thai cuisine, even when it’s demonstratively bad – grease, texture, overcooked items – because the flavors are so different from what I’m used to.  Do you have really bad taste buds or is there something to be said for enjoying new flavors?

It’s not a matter of genetics. More a matter of experience  and of educating oneself.Unless you’re seeking work in the industry, or as a food sensory analyst, no real reason to.    Eat and drink what appeals to you.  “Good” and “bad” have to do with  ego, fad, culture.