Anthony Bourdain enters the world of history with his short book, Typhoid Mary. While he’s best known for his memoirs, this is an exposé and social commentary. With typical Tony snark he tells the story of Mary Mallon, christened Typhoid Mary by the press.
Mary was an accomplished cook, working in the homes of the high and mighty. Bourdain explains that she was probably pretty high and mighty herself. Being the cook in a big, fancy house is a position of power. She most likely managed staff, as well as a significant budget. During the early 1900s people with means were huge foodies. The menus Bourdain shares are unique and extremely fancy.
As typhoid broke out in each house, people didn’t survive. But Mary never figured she was the reason. She just wanted to cook, since she made good money and enjoyed her life. Turns out the New York State Department of Health had another idea. They asked her to help them prove their typhoid hypothesis. And she refused. Thus ensued the medical and social justice hijinks.
Typhoid wasn’t exactly epidemic, but it was quite common in that time. Medical professionals didn’t have good testing or protocols. They were just figuring stuff out by the seat of their pants, and poor Mary got caught in the middle.
Bourdain makes a strong case for her human rights. He portrays her as a victim, refuting the press of her time, which considered her practically a cold-blooded killer. He’s the champion of the little guy, the underdog. And the government certainly steamrolled Mary in this case.
But I admired her pluck and persistence. She tried her best to overcome the situation, although it wasn’t clear she gained much food safety knowledge. And, like Bourdain’s other books, you’ll question the restaurant choices you make.
If you like history, social commentary, and a hefty dose of anti-establishment rhetoric this one’s for you.