Quicklet on Anthony Bourdain's Typhoid Mary: An Urban Historical

by Ross Preston

What's in the book?

Quicklets: Your reading sidekick!

    • Introducing the Author
    • Overall Summary
    • Chapter-by-Chapter Summary and Commentary
    • List of Important People
    • Notable Terms and Definitions
    • Interesting Related Facts
    • Sources
    • Additional Reading



There is no celebrity chef quite like Anthony Bourdain. He is known as much for his biting observations — and cast iron stomach — as he his for cooking.

Bourdain is currently in the eighth season of his Travel Channel hit show, “No Reservations.” In the series he travels to exotic locales to sample outlandish dishes. He’s famous for sampling lamb testicles, ant eggs, a seal eyeball, and a cobra. (Yet Chicken McNuggets top his list of bad meals, according to an interview he gave to AVClub.com.) This isn’t merely a rerun of “Fear Factor” — Bourdain shares the stories, cultures and rituals associated with these foods. The series has been nominated for five Emmys, taking home the prize in 2009.

Before he wrote books, stepped onto a TV set or picked up his first spatula, he was a typical New Yorker. Born in 1956, he studied at Vassar (he followed what he describes as “his current obsession” for the school, but rarely attended class). His life changed in the summer between his freshman and sophomore years, according to an article he wrote for Salon.com. That summer he spent with friends in Provincetown, on Cape Cod, working in the kitchen of an eatery called the Dreadnaught where he discovered his passion for life in the kitchen. That’s when he made the decision to leave Vassar and attend the Culinary Institute of America, which he graduated from in 1978.

Bourdain worked his way up from the bottom, starting out as a dishwasher, and holding every other position in the kitchen before he worked his way up to Executive Chef. His resume reads like a who’s who of restaurants: New York’s Supper Club, One Fifth Avenue and Sullivan’s. He’s currently the chef-at-large at Brasserie Les Halles, where he started as executive chef in 1998.

To date, he’s written three crime novels, a cookbook, and several bestsellers, including Kitchen Confidential and its follow-up, Medium Raw: A Bloody Valentine to the World of Food and the People Who Cook.

His writing career began with his New Yorker essay, “Don’t Eat Before Reading This,” in 1999. It was that piece and its resulting popularity that lead to Kitchen Confidential in 2000.


p>Chapter Four: The New Woman

Bourdain takes a break from the narrative to talk about the changing place of women in society. Here he talks about the strides women were making — breaking into careers once open only to men, at the cusp of getting the right to vote.

The men were not happy about this turn of events at all. Bourdain quotes several influential clergymen of the time decrying women who seemed to have forsaken their responsibilities at home to socialize, drink, gamble and work. In essence, all the things men were supposed to do.

How did this social revolution take place? Bourdain predictably traces the origin of the New Woman to the stomach, so to speak. Or more precisely, the empty stomach.

The true instigator of social revolution was starvation.

He notes the Irish Potato Famine of the mid-to-late 1840s caused a lot of social upheaval. Between the millions of dead, and the millions who left Ireland, it changed society throughly. Fewer people married, or fooled around, so there were fewer mouths to feed.

The women of Ireland, and the women of Ireland who came to America, had to make their own way in the world. It was an example that other immigrants and even “native born” Americans as they were called, would soon follow.

One of those women was Dr. Baker, who traded an education at Vassar for the Women’s Medical College of New York and would go on to become an influential figure in public health.

Bourdain shows that there were more than a few things Mary and Dr. Baker had in common, including the fact that they were both independent women unused to “taking guff from anyone.” There was a certain amount of irony to the fact that they were brought together they way they were: ultimately Baker sat on Mary in the ambulance to keep her restrained until it reached the hospital.

Mary Mallon was not a revolutionary. But she was part of a revolution. She wasn’t that different from the hundreds of thousands of women who’d been cut loose from one oppressive system to make her way in another. She was unluckier than most — in that she was identified as carrying typhoid. But like many of her peers, she was a fighter, a scrounger, a hustler, and a hater.

Chapter Five: The Cook’s Lament

In some sense, hasn’t this whole book been one cook’s lament — about the poor treatment of a fellow cook? Perhaps. But in this chapter Bourdain gets into Mary’s head more than in any other.

Is this a pure flight of pure fancy? Probably, but he based it on research and expert opinion, and also manages to raise a few good points:

  • Mary spent her life surrounded by death — from the starvation in Ireland, to the horrid conditions on the ship that brought her to these shores. She likely saw nothing strange about the way typhoid seemed to follow her, while leaving her healthy. It had happened before.
  • At the time, epidemics of one sort or other swept through cities every few years, killing many of the poor. No health inspectors were arresting people for that.
  • This incarceration ruined her ability to support herself. No one would hire a cook that made them sick. Cooking was Mary’s primary skill and talent. It’s what made her special, and got her high-paying, steady employment.
  • Mary felt fine. It took five officers to capture her. That didn’t seem like the feat of a sick person.

Mary had to be quite angry and outraged at the way she was treated. It wasn’t so hard to see why she was uncooperative. 

Chapter Six: A Good, Plain Cook

One gets the feeling that this is a really important chapter for Bourdain. Scientists and health professionals might not have investigated whether or not Mary Mallon had the chops to work in the kitchen. For Bourdain, this was the whole point.

He deduces that Mary must have been a great cook to have worked steadily between 1900 and 1906 for wealthy families.

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