Thursday, November 3, 2011

Don't Lick the Spoon!

Typhoid Mary’s Tasting Spoon (inspired by the life and legend of “Typhoid Mary” Mallon) – Antiqued and stained wooden frame, with cracked glass; antique silver spoon; black thread; cobwebs; hand-stained newspaper clippings; hand-stained typhoid fever warning; hand-stained potato soup recipe; paper flies; black and white print of a photograph of a New York tenement kitchen, ca. 1909

Thanksgiving time is here again!

What was that, groaning I heard amongst the groaning boards?

Not that traditional menu again?!

Your grandma’s time-honored roast turkey—so dry the oven must have been set to “cremation”.
Your wife’s cherished stuffing recipe—so gummy it could be used to repair the mortar on the chimney.
Your sister-in-law’s famous pumpkin pie—so heavy the Mafia’s threatened to use it instead of cement to weigh down bodies in the river.

And we won’t mention that string bean casserole, swimming in Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom soup; the one with French’s canned french-fried onions sprinkled on top?

Stop shuddering.

You should be thankful.

Thankful?! you scoff, eyebrows raised.



Thankful that your annual holiday repast is not being prepared by history’s most notorious cook, Mary Mallon…

…better known as “Typhoid Mary”.

Typhoid—a disease that once spread horror—is described thusly by a modern day medical journal (in laymen’s terms):

Typhoid fever is a bacterial infection characterized by diarrhea, systemic disease, and a rash – most commonly caused by the bacteria Salmonella typhi. S. typhi are spread by contaminated food, drink, or water. Following ingestion, the bacteria spread from the intestine via the bloodstream to the intestinal lymph nodes, liver, and spleen via the blood where they multiply and…

Okay, that’s enough of that—I’ll spare you the rest of the gory details. Basically, it’s a really, really, REALLY bad case of food poisoning, really, really, REALLY bad, as in, you-could-be-pushing-up-daisies-soon bad.

But that same medical journal provides an interesting footnote to its typhoid definition:

A few people can become carriers of S. typhi and continue to shed the bacteria for years, spreading the disease while being asymptomatic themselves, as in the case of "Typhoid Mary" in New York over 100 years ago.

There she is!

Typhoid Mary!

Mary Mallon was from good Irish stock, emigrating at age fifteen to the Land of Opportunity where she soon found employment in the upper-middle class New York suburb of Mamaroneck. Mary was a strong, willing worker, and a mighty fine cook it was said. Regrettably, all of her recipes came with an extra added ingredient—a heapin’ helpin’ of ‘em nasty S.typhi germs. That’s why, two weeks after being added to the servant roster at her very first job, those in the household came down with typhoid.

Mary jumped ship, and began quickly stirring up trouble in the heart of New York City. There her new family was, by and by, suffering from fevers and other ills of the Pepto-Bismol television commercial kind, if you know what I mean, and the laundress died, and they were out a cook, since their old one had just skedaddled.

Mary’s next position was behind the stove of an attorney, until seven out of eight of his relatives were rapidly indisposed, and a big “Quarantined for Typhoid” notice was plastered on his front door. It must be said here that tender-hearted Mary stayed on for a while, nursing those she made ill—those she had made unintentionally ill, continued to make unintentionally ill.

That’s the macabre joke of it all—Mary herself was perfectly healthy. Not a symptom of anything to be seen, to give fair warning—not a rumble of the tummy, not a twist of the bowel.


And so, with her current employers not much in need of a cook any longer—since most of them were unable to eat—Mary and her culinary expertise moved on to a post in the wealthy quarter of Oyster Bay, Long Island. Lo and behold, you guessed it, all there got sick, too! Six out of eleven hospitalized. Mary handed in her walking papers, and strolled into three more households, serving up bacteria by the spoonful.

By then, the New York Health Department realized it had a “carrier” on its hands; one redoubtable investigating agent finally tracing the breakouts straight to Mary Mallon’s kitchen door.

Poor Mary.

Under the law of the day, she was taken away to a clinic on North Brother Island located in the middle of Manhattan’s East River. There she languished for three years, until she promised she was “prepared to change her occupation (that of a cook), and would give assurance by affidavit that she would upon her release take such hygienic precautions as would protect those with whom she came in contact, from infection”.

Didn’t work.

Mary was soon back in the midst of the human throng, and cooking up a storm. In early 1915 alone she was alleged to have sickened over two dozen unfortunates—and causing one death—at, of all places, New York’s Sloan Hospital for Women.

Hey, you gotta do what you do best, right?

And damn, her fresh peach ice cream was first-class…

Be that as it may, the officials had had enough. Mary was carted off, kicking and screaming, back to her quarantine in the East River; this time confined there for life and becoming something of a minor celebrity with journalists always on the hunt for a good bad story.

In the end, it’s calculated that Mary Mallon, “Typhoid Mary”, was responsible for infecting fifty-three, and causing three deaths.

Mary’s own death came in 1938, when she was sixty-nine.

She was cremated (you can insert your own jokes here).

Since then, Mary’s name has gone down in infamy… well, at least her nickname. “Typhoid Mary” has been for nearly a century the medical world’s label for someone who passes along an ailment without being sick themselves. It’s also a term for anybody out there in cyberspace who deliberately and maliciously infects innocent computers with viruses. There’s even a hip-hop group named after her, and a comic book supervillian.

Oops! There goes the dinner bell!

See…there are worse things than that dry turkey, that gummy stuffing, that leaden pumpkin pie, so stop complaining…

…and go wash your hands.