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.

Music, Food and Love – Guo Yue & Clare Farrow

Guo Yue was born in Beijing in 1958 so was eight years old when the Cultural Revolution began and this memoir is of a childhood through a period of turmoil as Chairman Mao ran his country into the ground from The Great Leap Forward in 1958 with the re-organisation of China into collectives dedicated to single products which largely failed and ignored the skilled workforce elsewhere who were now forced to do something different, usually badly, to the personality cult of the The Cultural Revolution. Yue was given this name as it means leap forward (Chinese names are family name first, then given name) to mark the year of his birth and the book largely follows his life from then until May 1982 when he left China to study music in London. As you can imagine because he was a child throughout most of the events this is not a usual book about China in those times, rather it is story of family life and survival in a period of extreme upheaval most of which made little sense to the small boy growing up in a two room home around a courtyard of an abandoned temple which was populated by various musicians who had been allocated rooms there in 1949 during another of Mao’s policies.

His overwhelming memories are of making music, cooking, eating and making what fun he could with his friends, politics only creeps in when it impacts his family, those also living in the courtyard or his school friends. His father died in 1964 and this obviously had a massive impact on the family not only emotionally but financially. His mother was a teacher and intellectual who spoke several languages which of course drew the ire of the People’s Army when the Cultural Revolution began and she was eventually bundled off into the countryside to work the land as a punishment for intelligence only reappearing for the occasional night to see how her six children were coping without parents and comfort her youngest, Yue. Eventually she was too exhausted and ill to continue to be in the fields and she was returned home but by then her health was broken.

Yue describes his neighbourhood and the various shops he would run errands to for his elder sisters to get the rationed ingredients they needed and cheap restaurants he would later gather at with friends in his teens before joining the army as a musician beautifully. The map at the start of the book helps you follow him around his local part of north eastern Beijing. You also register his bewilderment and things suddenly change at the whim of Chairman Mao and the changes again ten years after the start of the Cultural Revolution when Mao died and subsequent leaders unravelled the his immensely damaging policies. His fellow author is his wife Clare Farrow a writer and editor on various arts publications specialising in architecture.

One of the joys of the book is that it also includes recipes. At the end of most chapters there is a short list of dishes mentioned in the text and the final seventy pages consists of a quick guide to Chinese cookery and numerous recipes that have had minor tweaks to allow for the unavailability of some of the ingredients used in revolutionary China in London in 2006.

In September 2007 I was visiting my original home town of Nantwich in Cheshire, England to go to its excellent annual Food Festival where Guo Yue was one of the celebrity chefs doing a cookery demonstration, so I actually bought the book from him at the time and he signed it for me in both Pinyin Chinese and English. From memory he cooked two or three of the dishes featured in the book and as I had a front row seat I managed to try some. Sadly the festival has been cancelled again this year due to the uncertainties around what can and cannot be done done the pandemic but I hope to go again in 2022.

Yue also played one of his flutes at the end of the cooking demonstration. Apologies for the poor quality of the image but it was taken with only the natural light through a marquee roof using a mobile phone, which back in 2007 did not possess the camera quality of modern smart phones. In 2006 Guo Yue went back to Beijing to work on an album also called Music, Food and Love and you can see a video recorded then here.

The Plagiarist in the Kitchen – Jonathan Meades

I first came across Jonathan Meades through his highly idiosyncratic TV documentaries where he was always dressed as shown on the cover of this volume, all in black with black sunglasses. He would talk direct to the camera whilst totally ignoring something going on behind him or alternatively somebody else would be talking to the camera and he would appear in the background apparently having little connection to what was being said. The films looked spontaneous precisely because they weren’t, everything was tightly scripted and performed with an artifice unique to Meades. The person on screen was not Meades as he really was it was Meades acting a character of himself and presenting the sort of intelligent TV that rarely gets made today. I later found out that The Times newspaper had employed him as a restaurant critic for fifteen years so seeing that in 2017 he had written a cookbook made searching that out imperative. How would the Jonathan Meades I knew and loved from his many programmes approach cooking. The answer, it turned out, was uniquely and also filled with his dry wit, in short exactly as I hoped.

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Meades explains the title by stating that all recipes are theft, they all come from somebody, even if you add to or alter them in some way, there is really only so many ways to cook something and they have all been done. This is more than a cookbook it is a cookery philosophy and also assumes that the reader has an understanding of cooking in that a lot of the recipes don’t actually have quantities to the ingredients. The only times that quantities are given is when it is essential to get the balance right such as avoiding a sloppy batter, or getting the right balance of flavours such as with gayettes (French style faggots). Other than that there may be hints, such as don’t use too much celery or carrot in a mirepoix because both can dominate. Some of the recipes can barely be called such.

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Simplicity is everything. But when he needs a more complex approach it can also be found here, cassoulet for instance takes four pages, most of which is actually involved with cooking the dish.  What you definitely do get is a healthy dose of advice, such as his instructions for making risotto.

What you do with the rice is more important than where it comes from
What you do is keep patient
What you do is stay put whilst it’s cooking
What you don’t do is slip outside for a gasper with the other snoutcasts
What you don’t do is include wine. It adds nothing

Do not get carried away stirring, cooking is not therapy

One of the joys of the book are Meades epigrams, which can be pearls of wisdom or just plain funny. Just a few from the section on oils will give a flavour of what to expect

  • Extra-virgin might be a desirable quality in nuns … but applied to olive oil it is close to meaningless
  • Various degrees of chastity have spread to other oils
  • Duck fat – Much cheaper than goose fat and virtually indistinguishable.
  • Toasted sesame – Asian dishes are for consuming, not for preparing. It is futile to steal what you can’t understand
  • Beef dripping – Delicious on toast … Good for chips and Yorkshire pudding and anything else that comes from north of the Trent

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The recipes are definitely practical and I will certainly be cooking a few with the exception of the fig and ham tart which ends

Leave to cool
Taste
Chuck in bin

This was Meades attempt a creating a dish and as he says the reasoning behind it appeared sound at the start but…

Only the doltishly insentient, the immemoriously recidivist, the sociopathic and the smug regret nothing. I no doubt belong, in this instance, to one of those unhappy categories by not regretting having invented this dish. I do not regret it because it was a warning. Never create when you can steal. Never enter a restaurant that advertises its ‘cuisine d’auteur’ or ‘creative cooking’.

But definitely do read this book.