If you do a Google search for “how did Elvis Presley die,” most answers will mention prescription drugs and cardiac arrest. Until I read Gulp, I hadn’t heard that the King had what’s known as a megacolon, which is exactly what it sounds like: a big-ass large intestine. According to his personal physician George Nichopoulos, the condition gave Elvis such terrible constipation that Nichopoulous had to administer laxatives and enemas on an almost daily basis. Whether the condition was the result of genetics or years of drug use is up for debate. Anecdotally it’s been said that Elvis was troubled by constipation from the age of two, to the extent that his mother had to stimulate him to “expel.” This can’t be confirmed because Elvis’s mother died when he was in his early twenties, and if Priscilla knows anything about it, she’s not talking.
Death by constipation is just one of the mysteries of the alimentary canal that Mary Roach investigates in Gulp. But wait–I’m starting at the finale. Roach’s examination of all things digestive is methodical and organized, starting with our sense of smell and emotional taboos towards food and working up–or rather, down–to where our food exits our body (or not, as in the case of poor Elvis).
Roach asks the questions you never knew needed answers: Why does haute cuisine from Ludo Lefebvre’s latest pop-up go from to-die-for to disgusting after a millisecond in your mouth? Because in order to get food to a swallowable state, our teeth, tongue, saliva, and other oral tools are working hard to turn our food into chewed-up, ugly particles. Why doesn’t the fish that a penguin swallows and marches back to her young several days’ journey away digest in her stomach before she can deliver it to the hungry baby? Because penguin tummies are like little refrigerators, dropping the temperature enough so that gastric juices become inactive, keeping the food from rotting during the trip. If cows are so full of gas, why don’t you ever hear them burp? Because cows and other ruminants can reroute methane into their lungs and quietly exhale it; otherwise, you’d have wild prey animals out on the plains constantly announcing their position to predators by belching after every meal. Are their any health benefits to rectal feeding? Well, actually. . .no. Just no.
I’m still not convinced that last one needed to be answered, but the point is, Roach isn’t afraid to email, phone, and generally hound experts in these fields to deliver the information to her readers. (Although, as Roach points out, scientists studying saliva, at least, don’t appear to be inundated with media requests.) If I haven’t made it obvious yet, Roach has a silly, slightly sophomoric sense of humor, which is probably a requirement if you’re going to be studying the ins and outs (ha!) of food consumption and digestion. She supplies interesting asides in her footnotes, such as additional reading, including colorectal surgeon Chris Lahr’s Why Can’t I Go? which “features dozens of defecography stills and close-ups of colon surgery graphic enough that the back cover has a warning.” Or advice, like the importance of correctly knowing the difference between “per annum” (in a given year) and “per anum” (by way of the anus). My favorite tangent is about when the Catholic Church “sought an answer to the nagging question ‘Does rectal consumption of beef broth break one’s Lenten fast?'” According to the Vatican’s rules on fasting, food is digestible, received from outside through the mouth, and passed on to the stomach. Apparently, back in the 1600s, people were using rectal consumption to get the calories they needed during periods of fasting, forcing the Vatican to reconsider that definition. I’ve always said Catholicism is a religion of loopholes, and I tip my lace chapel veil to those 17th century pros!
Roach writes science books for people who think they don’t like science. As entertaining as this book is, she never makes her jokes at the expense of scientific fact. It’s funny, yes, but it’s also scrupulously researched. How many of us would be willing to interview a prisoner serving life for murder to get the poop (sorry!) on how many cell phones one can conceivably smuggle into prison per anum (not a typo!).