MOTIVATION: I can’t remember when I saw this title and knew I wanted to read it but it has been haunting my tbr for awhile now. Recently, it popped up available on my Amazon Wishlist from no longer being “out of print.” I purchased.
I read this for the NY Challenge because the setting is NYC and Long Island and for the Women Unbound Challenge.
“It was August 27, 1906, when at the rented summer home of Charles Henry Warren and family in Oyster Bay, Long Island, the Warrens’ youngest daughter became ill with what was diagnosed as typhoid fever.”
WHAT’s IT ABOUT: Bourdain takes a look at the notorious Typhoid Mary and how she could know or not know she was a carrier of a dangerous illness and still continued to work as a cook.
WHAT’s GOOD: I actually hear Bourdain’s voice in my head as I’m reading and this is ok. I like that he approached this project with a focus of how he might relate to Ms. Mary Mallon and her career as a cook. This is the enjoyable aspect of the book.
WHAT’s NOT so GOOD: Not that I have checked the facts, but others have complained that this was dismally inadequate in the research. The World’s Fair mentioned as being in the wrong year/city, etc. SO, it might be a little akin to relying too trustingly on a Wiki article. I realize and appreciate the sticklers for accuracy, but I didn’t let it get me down. Could it be classified as Pop-History?
JUSTIFICATION for the WOMEN UNBOUND Challenge: Bourdain gives us some background into immigration at the time Mary would have come to America. He also explores what was called then ‘the NEW Woman’ and how Irish Women, specifically those that entered the service professions, were particularly keen on independence and making their own way — surviving and thriving.
We are introduced to Dr. Josephine Baker – a pioneer in medicine/public health for her day and gender. Dr. Baker is actually the person who first brought Mary in to test whether or not she was a typhoid germ carrier. This ‘bringing in’ was not an easy task and gives the reader the best insight into the long fight to keep Mary out of the kitchen.
The power structure of the Health Department was such that NYC was able to incarcerate Mary for years without official charge nor jury. Bourdain has an entire chapter speculating on Mary’s skills and also guesses her motivations and thoughts – little survives on her background but newspapers of the day sensationalized her story. She seemed to have a knack for employment; her ability to find jobs which must have meant that she was likely a very capable cook – especially considering the craziness of high society menus that were being served to impress.
If you like Bourdain, you might like this short foray into the life of an interesting woman and the times she lived. Does he defend Mary and her actions? No, but he is sympathetic to her plight. If you are a stickler for thoroughness and objectivity, skip it.
RATING: Three slices of pie. (with NO scoops of ice cream! Ice cream is likely to be the food you’d eat and thus catch this deadly disease if Mary worked in your kitchen…)