Typhoid Mary

Thoughts   Typhoid Mary by Anthony Bourdain,  Bloomsbury 2001, 144 pages

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…)


Age 30+ has a short, informative and personal review.


Copyright © 2010. Care’s Online Book Club. All rights reserved. This post was originally posted by Care from Care’s Online Book Club. It should not be reproduced without express written permission.

30 thoughts on “Typhoid Mary

  1. I love Anthony Bourdain and had no idea he wrote this book so was really intrigued by your review. Sounds like an interesting book even if it wasn’t entirely accurate 🙂

  2. It’s so neat to see that Anthony Bourdain wrote something like this. In my mind I see him connected solely to Kitchen Confidential and eating crazy foods. Thanks for reviewing it– now I know! 😀

    1. I wish I could remember what prompted me to want this book, but OH WELL. And I am looking forward to Kitchen Confidential; I’ve heard it is wonderful.

    1. Bourdain does include a two page list of Suggested Reading/Biblio. (But no index.) By reading thru it – perhaps Judith Walzer Leavitt’s Typhoid Mary: Captive To the Public’s Health would be a good place to start?

    1. Oops. Did I leave something out of my review AND/or assume my reader knows too much? (I do tend to do that almost every post, don’t I?)
      Yes, Bourdain is a TV Personality who travels around the world eating exotic foods, for the most part. I’ve only seen a few shows to be honest! His background is in the food industry; I would gamble he’s been to culinary school. He’s written quite a few books – not just cookbooks; even some fiction! His Kitchen Confidential book is well-received.
      Answer: ALL OF THE ABOVE.
      Do read Heather’s review – she talks more about AB than I do.

  3. What have I written, let me type that again 🙂

    Oh I like Bourdain, but never read any of his books, I’m not sure I want to start with this one though…

    1. I did enjoy. I read too many reviews before starting it, but that’s OK with nonfiction, sometimes. AND knowing that some people were upset with the whole accuracy issue (ahem) meant that I could read for style and general information.

  4. I’ve never read any Bourdain, but I like his TV persona, so I suspect I would like this too. Hawaii is the first place I have lived that requires TB testing for certain job sectors. The crazy thing is, if you are tested for it once, the test is considered good for life, at least in the food service industry. Maybe I just don’t know enough about TB, but this doesn’t seem like it makes any sense. What if you are exposed to it at any time after the initial test?

  5. Yes, I think you are right. But does it make sense to test once a lifetime for any contagious disease? I have no idea abt TB/Typhoid/Hep etc and how it can be tested or vaccinated, etc… NOT my area of expertise.

    Just wash those hands really really really well. 🙂

  6. So, I was just going through some paperwork and I came across my TB card, and I thought, Hey, I was just talking about this on someone’s blog…huh, that blog was about Typhoid Mary…why was I blathering on about TB? LOL. Sorry! I’m glad to see that Valerie was paying better attention than I was!

    1. and that is what it is all about! too funny. I’m so glad you remembered it was me! I was thinking about you during the Hawaii-tsunami-watch Sunday. Was it as dramatic for you as for us watching CNN? Hope all is well.

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