Typhoid Mary – Anthony Bourdain

First published by Bloomsbury in America in 2001, this is the 2005 UK edition, why we had to wait four years for the book to come out in the UK is a mystery, maybe they thought Typhoid Mary, or Mary Mallon to give her her proper name wasn’t that well known over this side of the Atlantic. The author is Anthony Bourdain a celebrity chef in his native America who morphed into a travel presenter on TV whilst also writing several books of which this is the most unusual as it is the only one not based on his own career. Initially he seems drawn to Mary as a fellow cook and this is by far the most sympathetic telling of her life that I have read, emphasising the stresses of working in a kitchen and her total disbelief that the typhoid cases happening around her had anything to do with her as she was so healthy. In fact she was the first ever identified asymptomatic carrier of a disease so she remained perfectly well but everything she touched became infected. This would probably be OK if all the food she prepared for her various wealthy patrons had been cooked but there would be salads, ice-creams etc all of which could have been lethal.

Mary is known to have infected fifty three people with typhoid of which three died but to the end of her days never seemed to have grasped that she was a carrier. She was employed by various rich families between 1900 and 1907 and must have been a good cook to be able to deal with the demands of such a job where her employers would have expected new and interesting dishes almost every day especially whilst entertaining their friends. This is the basis of Bourdain’s interest in her, his own descriptions of life in a professional kitchen where those people outside the four walls of the hot and busy kitchen are largely treated with contempt by those inside as nothing else matters apart from getting the food out are somewhat worrying and I’m glad I never had an opportunity to eat anywhere he was cooking.

In 1907 after being identified by George Soper as the probable source of the infections she was forcibly incarcerated on North Brother Island off the coast of New York but not until after Soper had made several cack handed attempts to obtain blood and stool samples even at his first go confronting her in the kitchen of current employer and demanding samples there and then. Needless to say Mary saw him off with a carving fork she had to hand. Ultimately she was detained by five policemen and a female doctor who ended up sitting on Mary as she tried to escape from the ambulance. Bourdain has nothing but contempt for Soper, not just from the inappropriate ways he confronted Mary Mallon but also for his constant self promotion as the person who stopped Typhoid Mary. The cover of the book is based on an illustration used in one of the articles in the New York American which reported on her detention in 1909.

She was to spend three years on North Brother Island before a press campaign managed to get her released in 1910 on condition that she regularly reported to the Department of Health and stopped cooking. It may seem surprising that such a campaign was started but it must be understood that Mary had not been convicted of anything and was simply being held under health statutes without trial or any possibility of a trial. However being a cook was the one thing she was good at and soon after she had started work as a laundress she went back to cooking although no longer in smart houses but in mass canteens, finally detained again five years later whilst working at the Sloane Hospital for Women and it is at this point that Bourdain finally moves his position from being sympathetic to her plight to some condemnation that she was working supplying food to neonatal wards. This time there would be no release and she remained on North Brother Island for the final twenty three years of her life. Despite being clearly unhappy about the danger she was potentially causing to new borns at the end of her cooking career Bourdain still has a regard for her and at the end of the book describes visiting her grave almost as a pilgrimage.

The book is very well written and I found myself reading it at one sitting as I was drawn into the sad story of Mary Mallon’s life. Bourdain was a well known user of narcotics, mainly cocaine and heroin especially in his early career, possibly as a coping mechanism for the stress in his job, and committed suicide in 2018 whilst filming his travel/cookery programme in France.

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