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29
Jun 13

Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal – Mary Roach

Gulp

If you’re a fan of fart jokes, like me, then you’ll love this book. Gulp takes a holistic look at the entire process of eating, with each chapter touching on some aspect of the process. And of the seventeen chapters, fully three of them are more or less about farting.

The book wasn’t organized quite the way I expected. I kinda assumed it would be a little more focused and scientific, following a linear path from the mouth to the butt. However, rather than taking this direct approach, Roach rather uses it as a baseline to head off on interesting tangents – the chemistry of spit, can animals or people survive being swallowed by other animals, the mechanics of smuggling contraband with your ass, etc. I suppose I should have expected this, since it’s the same approach used in the other book of her’s I’ve read, Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers.

I like Roach’s mix of science, humor and her eye for the bizarre. She also makes liberal use of footnotes, many of which are used to insert humorous asides. For example, in the chapter where she explores if it’s possible to survive being swallowed by a whale, she has the following footnote following a sentence about the possibility of a sailor being swallowed by a sperm whale:

I challenge you to find a more innocuous sentence containing the words sperm, suction, swallow, and any homophone of seaman. And then call me up on the homophone and read it to me.

So yeah, pretty entertaining.


27
Mar 13

Twinkie, Deconstructed – Steve Ettlinger

Twinkie final cover

This is totally my kind of book. I’ve always been an ingredients reader and I’ve always wondered about those strange, chemically-sounding items that show up all the time. Over time, I’ve learned about a few of these mysterious ingredients, but Twinkie, Deconstructed conveniently addresses most of them in one book.

The book starts off with the author’s kids catching him reading the ingredients of an ice cream bar and they ask him what’s in it, followed by questions like “What’s polysorbate-60?” and “Where does polysorbate-60 come from, Daddy? “. So he decides to delve into the world of food processing, using the Twinkie’s ingredients list as the basis. He ends up looking into all the ingredients (listed here in the book’s table of contents), exploring the production and processing of everything from eggs, wheat and sugar to cellulose gum, phosphates and, yes, polysorbate-60.

twinkies

I guess I wasn’t too surprised at this glimpse into today’s world of modern food production and processing. Everything is done on a huge industrial scale and is part of a global food/industrial complex. Some of the more interesting points I took away from the book are:

  • A ton of things are made from corn
  • It’s all about chemistry
  • Even more things (including foodstuffs) are made from petroleum
  • For many ingredients or raw materials, there are only a handful of producers worldwide
  • Everything is very proprietary (trade secrets) and production facilities are often off-limits under Homeland Security regulations

I found the book to be very interesting, even if it did start to get a little repetitive as he described yet another industrial facility and the various sequences of chemical reactions that turned A into B into C into something you end up eating. However, I appreciated his engaging and often humorous style as well as the historical context he gave for many of the ingredients in addition to their modern production methods. So, if you’ve ever wondered about polysorbate 60 (or riboflavin, diglycerides, calcium sulfate, FD&C Red No. 40, etc.), where they come from and how they’re made, then you’ll enjoy this book.