Pick up any basic microbiology textbook and you’ll find a brief mention of Mary Mallon aka ‘Typhoid Mary’ ' the notorious cook who unwittingly caused typhoid outbreaks in New York a century ago. Employed as a cook in upper-crust society, she’s believed to have spread the fatal Salmonella typhae to nearly 30 people belonging to many families.
It was a sanitary engineer called Dr George Soper who tailed Mary and cracked the mystery: Mary belonged to five per cent of those people in the society who recovered from typhoid but became permanent carriers, “the bacteria settling comfortably into their gall-bladders and digestive tracts like rent-controlled pensioners.”
Bourdain, a chef and author, is on a hot pursuit of the lady who helped pathologists crack the mystery of one of the biggest killers in history.
Unlike textbook authors, Bourdaine takes Mary’s side and recreates the horrifying conditions in contemporary New York which might have aided the spread of the disease. But he rambles on about the role of hygiene and spreading of other food-borne bugs. An exciting read, nevertheless.