Renowned chef and legend Anthony Bourdain loved the fighting spirit of the notorious “Typhoid Mary” Mallon, an Irish immigrant.
The late chef and author, Anthony Bourdain was a hero to many, not just in the culinary world. His rasping wit, lack of pretence, and refusal to take lucrative commercials deals endeared him to millions.
But who did he look up to? Astonishingly, one of his heroes was Typhoid Mary, Mary Mallon the cook from Ireland who was a carrier of typhus disease. She is thought to have infected 51 people in America during the early 1900s.
What did Bourdain see in the disgraced Irish woman whose name was notorious and a watchword for calamity? “It's no mystery," wrote book reviewer Adam Schatz “ A professional cook, an Irish immigrant and a defiant outlaw, Mallon was the kind of person he likes to employ in his kitchens. If Bourdain made anything clear about his hiring practices in Kitchen Confidential, it was his preference for the ''non-American'' and the ''tough-as-nails, foul-mouthed, trash-talking female line cook,'' particularly over ''bed-wetting white boys.''
Bourdain even wrote a book about her, Typhoid Mary: An Urban Historical, in which he paid homage. Even more extraordinary, he visited her grave in The Bronx and brought his original kitchen knife as a gift. “Cook to cook,” as he wrote.
“I looked around the graveyard making sure no one else was watching, leaned over and with my hands pulled back the grass at the base of her stone. I slipped my knife down there, covered it up the way it looked before and left it for her. It was the least I could do.”
Mary was certainly rough and ready but also an oddly sympathetic figure as Bourdain brings out. She committed no crime, was never tried in a court of law yet spend most of her life in enforced isolation on a remote island of Manhattan.
READ MORE: Our Favourite Anthony Bourdain Moments
Bourdain discovers that Mary was actually an excellent cook at a time at the beginning of the 20th century when a massive economic boom was resulting in demands on chefs and cooks to come up with far more than the usual standard fare. Mary, he notes, stayed in employment a long time, a sign she was well regarded in a business where cooks were fired on a whim.
She first came to attention after the upscale Warren family hired her as the summer cook in their Oyster Bay residence, not far from President Teddy Roosevelt's house. Suddenly the blue blood family began coming down with typhus, a poor person’s disease that didn’t usually affect the rich. Now the Fifth Avenue hostesses were frantic, what if the disease struck them?
Bourdain writes that Mary was eventually identified as the carrier but refused to accept it. It was Mary against the system and for the following years, she somehow managed to find employment in the homes of the rich before being discovered and sent to North Brother Island, a remote outpost off Manhattan.
After fighting for her freedom and becoming quite the jailhouse lawyer, Mary was allowed back to work as long as she didn’t cook. She became a seamstress but hated the low paying work and Bourdain is not surprised when she started cooking again, the only thing she knew. Caught again she was returned to the island never to depart - though never convicted of a crime.
Bourdain loved the fire in Mary, the refusal to knuckle, the escapes, the sheer anarchy of it all. They were kindred spirits in many ways, so it is hardly surprising that he spoke so warmly of her in his book. Somewhere in the wild blue yonder, they are sharing an exotic meal together, this time prepared by Bourdain!
Do you have any particularly fond Bourdain memories? Let us know in the comment section below.
* Originally published in 2018.
Story originally published by Irish Central.