Typhoid Mary

Monday, June 7, 2010

When he found her grave, executive chef Anthony Bourdain, of Brasserie Les Halles in New York, scraped soil from around her tombstone and buried a knife there.

He buried the first fine-quality chef’s knife he ever owned as a tribute to Mary Mallon. “As one cook to another”, he said.

Mary Mallon is the subject of a biography Bourdain wrote, Typhoid Mary: An Urban Historical. (Bloomsbury (St. Martin’s Press) ©2001. 148 pages).

Over the weekend Ginny and I have read for hours on end. Oddly enough, much of our reading involved plagues or epidemics—not that we planed it that way, it was just how our reading worked out.

I read Carla Buckley’s The Things That Keep Us Here, a novel set in the near future about avian flu. Ginny read Connie Willis’ Doomsday Book, a science fiction novel set in the 14th Century about the Black Death.

Then, on a trip to Georgia, Ginny bought me a copy of Typhoid Mary—which I read at one sitting. Mary Mallon, discovered to be a carrier of Typhoid but without ever showing symptoms of the disease herself, cooked for affluent New York families at the turn of the 20th Century.

When a health department associate tracked her down, he arrested her and, without hearing, trial or court order, confined her to an isolation unit on an island in the East River for five years.

Although at least 25 other carriers of the disease had been identified, because Mary worked as a cook, she became notorious among them. Health department officials seemed to mount a vendetta against her and many newspaper cartoonists portrayed her as a vile monster deliberately spreading infection:

On the other hand, A Hearst newspaper took up the issue of her unjust confinement and a judge released her for a time. She returned to cooking under an assumed name.

They caught her again and confined her to the island again till her death, from a stroke, 28 years later.

Again, no criminal charges, trial or legal rights involved.

She was confined simply because of the possibility she might be a menace to public health and infect other people—a far cry from today when AIDS-infected people do their thing unhindered and unidentified. Different world. When was the last time you heard of anyone infected with Typhoid? Just asking.

Be that as it may, Anthony Bourdain wrote one fine and fascinating book, one I think only he could have written. Bringing his own background as a chef to the task, he writes about the frustrations and problems a cook, especially a female cook, an Irish immigrant, struggled with at the turn of the century.

I found his biography a can’t-put-down read. The man writes so well. I envy his skill as a researcher and as a writer. He conveys information and ideas with concise insightful, well-balanced sentences that flow.

He writes much better than I do—and his real profession is not writer, but chef—that’s criminal!

So, he’s an executive chef and a talented writer. So what!

I’ll bet I can fry up a better corndog than he can any day!

• Please, visit my website for more www.cowart.info and feel free to look over and buy one of my books www.bluefishbooks.info, posted by John Cowart. Or contact John at johnwcowart (at) gmail (dot) com.


3 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. felisol
    Jun 07, 2010 @ 14:27:57

    I love your way of writing, Dear John C,
    Now also giving generously good book reviews.
    I think I have read about a Norwegian typhoid cook, working at some road working station in the mountains, long time ago. Black Bear, she was called..She was not so badly treated though.

  2. John M Cowart
    Jun 07, 2010 @ 21:40:43

    And who’s the one who’s an international author Dad? I’m certain this other fellow is quite good as well.

    And no, I won’t stop blowing your horn. You refuse, so someone must.



  3. Tracy
    Jun 07, 2010 @ 23:41:03

    Sounds like a good read. I especially find this of interest since I’ve had to deal with the department of pubic health (previously known as the department of health) so many times over the past couple of decades.