We're sitting down with our favorite writers and cooks to talk about their upcoming cookbooks, their best food memories, and just about anything else.
Today, we talk to Mary Roach, whose new book Gulp fearlessly investigates what happens to our food after it leaves our plate. Read on for a laugh, a few fun facts, and a new book for your nightstand -- we're giving away three copies!
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Mary Roach is undeterred by taboo. After all, the woman wrote a book all about the science of intercourse. And she titled it Bonk.
In her latest book, Gulp, she discusses everything that happens to our food after it leaves our plate -- from smelling, to chewing, to all that other stuff that we usually avoid calling by name.
The beauty of the book, though, is Roach's ability to share the facts behind traditionally "icky" topics with a particular brand of humor that leaves the reader more comfortable with the subject and significantly better informed. And her research tactics are as fearless as her writing. (Spoiler alert number one: she sticks her arm into a live cow's stomach.)
Last week, we called Mary up to chat about her book, discuss the taste of narwhal skin, and learn how to taste our food more fully. Spoiler alert number two: she's just as hilarious in person as you'd expect her to be.
What drove you to write about the science behind eating and digestion? When I was writing Packing For Mars, the most fun chapter was about the waste management group at NASA. It's an interesting engineering challenge: going to the bathroom at zero gravity is not an easy thing to do. So I had my head in the toilet already.
I had also written an article for Hippocrates Magazine investigating how the Inuit are able to eat a diet comprised exclusively of meat, as well as a piece about people who eat things that aren't food. People are obsessed with food, but they don't want to think about it once it leaves the plate -- the topic is right up my alley.
How do you manage to write about things that so many people consider "icky" in such an appealing way? I approach it as I approach any other topic, and I don't flinch. Enthusiasm is contagious, but flinching is contagious, too. I want readers to say, "I thought this would be really gross, but it's interesting."
What's one of your favorite facts you unearthed while researching this book? I love that when you blush, the lining of your stomach blushes too.
You smelled and tasted a lot of different things. What were some of the best and some of the worst? This isn't very PC, but I really loved muktuk [narwhal skin]. It was so fresh -- kind of like walking up to the narwhal and taking a bite. It has a delicate, nutty, mushroomy flavor. It was really good.
I liked a lot of the other Inuit foods, like raw caribou carpaccio and fermented walrus buried in limestone and slightly decomposed and then frozen. That takes a little getting used to -- it's stinky, like the underneath of an old wharf or something. Ocean-stinky and rotting, but good!
I didn't like caribou bone marrow, though. And raw char eyeball had a disturbing texture, plus the attaching muscle on the back is tough to chew.
Has writing this book changed the way you eat? I'm much more aware of the role of smell in my food now. I do that retronasal olfaction thing where you hold wine, gin, or food in your mouth and you exhale through your nose. The gasses start to release and waft up into your nose, where you perceive them. I do more of that now, and I appreciate and detect a lot more flavors than I used to. You miss out on a lot of the flavor in your mouth when you don't involve your nose actively.
You don't want to get too vigorous, though, or else you risk nasal regurgitation.
We're giving away three copies of Gulp to our readers! Tell us in the comments: what's the most exotic thing you've ever eaten? We'll choose three seriously lucky winners this Friday, April 19 at 3 PM EST.