Until Proven Safe

Behold! Edible Geography rises, vampire*-like, from the dead, for today marks the publication of my very first book! Until Proven Safe: The History and Future of Quarantine is co-authored with Geoff Manaugh, whom long-time readers of this blog will recognize as my husband and frequent collaborator, as well as the author of BLDGBLOG and, more recently, A Burglar’s Guide to the City, among many other books, articles, and stories.

This book has been a very long time in the making. A very, very long time, if you consider that I have dreamt of having my name on a book cover since I was a kid devouring Charles Dickens, George Eliot, Agatha Christie, and anything else I could get my hands on, Jilly Cooper and Erich von Däniken included, by torchlight under my duvet. Some of you may also recall that Geoff and I led a workshop and curated an exhibition called “Landscapes of Quarantine” at Storefront for Art & Architecture in NYC, back in the impossibly distant autumn of 2009.

But that wasn’t enough to get quarantine out of our system, and we subsequently decided to write a book on the topic. Today, finally, spurred on only slightly by the arrival of a global pandemic and its accompanying mass lockdowns, that book is out in the world, and available for purchase!

Quarantine is, as we all now know, and as the host of our U.S. book launch event, Mary Roach, has astutely joked, extremely boring to live through—but it was utterly fascinating to spend a decade researching and writing about, and is, at least according to Mary, very enjoyable to read about too.

Edible Geographers will probably want to dive straight into our chapter looking at quarantine across species: the social distancing practices of ants and termites, as well as the border checkpoints, maximum security greenhouses, and agricultural robots that keep our food supply safe. You can hear me and Geoff discuss parts of that with my co-host, Cynthia Graber, on this episode of our podcast, Gastropod, and read an excerpt from that chapter of the book at Wired.

There’s much more in the book besides: the behind-the-scenes story of how U.S. quarantine efforts went so wrong during COVID-19; not to mention an Ebola bubble, some nuclear waste, a boredom researcher, a four-star general, and Johnny Depp’s dogs… One excerpt, in The Atlantic, introduces a group of obscure hobbyists who collect disinfected mail, and what their archives reveal about how quarantine has shaped borders, inspired the invention of the passport, and even led to the creation of the United Nations; another, in The Guardian, profiles the woman charged with protecting space from Earth life—and vice versa.

A seemingly simple concept—the temporary isolation of potentially dangerous life or matter, until it is proven safe—turns out to illuminate fundamental anxieties: about how to balance the risks of contact with outsiders with its rewards, for example, or how to navigate the bias and potential abuse inherent to a legal power of detention that is entirely based on suspicion. Quarantine offers the illusory attraction of drawing a line between inside and out—us and them—while highlighting the tension between individual liberty and public good, and even the eternal challenge of clear communication in a state of uncertainty.

All of which is to say, I am extremely proud of the book, and very happy to see it out in the world. Please pick up a copy, and join us at one of our book events in the coming weeks—if you’d like, with a Lazaretto** in hand!

*Vampire myths, as it happens, have a connection to quarantine: one of the longest-standing quarantine lines in history, on the edges of the Austro-Hungarian empire, became ground-zero for vampire sightings in the late 1800s, triggering a literary mania that swept Europe. Read the book for more!

**The Lazaretto is a custom cocktail created specially for Until Proven Safe by master-mixologist Eben Klemm. It uses Wilder gin from Ventura Spirits: this is the beverage to which we turned after a hard day at the computer face while writing the book, and so we were delighted when they agreed to sponsor our book launch. Thank you, Ventura Spirits (and Rosecrans Baldwin, for the introduction)! And a huge thanks to Eben Klemm, for creating a drink whose resonances with quarantine work both conceptually and on the level of individual ingredients—but is still simple to make and utterly delicious! (Thanks also to Wayne Chambliss, for the introduction to Eben.) Grab some limes and make your own to sip while at our book events or while reading a copy of Until Proven Safe.

The Lazarretto

2 ounces Wilder gin
Juice of 1/2 lime (use fresh limes; see below)
1/2 ounce honey syrup (dilute 1 part honey to 1 part water)

You may build the above ingredients in a small ice-filled Collins glass or shake with ice first and then strain into an ice-filled Collins glass. (Or, honestly, whatever glassware you have)

Fill to 1/4 inch from top with good quality tonic water.

Turn lime half completely inside out and poke a hole in its navel with a skewer. Place in drink, convex side down, and add 1/4 ounce cassis inside of the “lime-aretto.”

The lime-lazaretto is, like all quarantines, inevitably leaky. The blackcurrant is a fruit that was under federal quarantine for years—it acts as a host for a pathogen that wipes out pine forests (this quarantine is the reason that purple Skittles are grape-flavored in the US and blackcurrant everywhere else). The citrus and honey refer to the California border quarantine system, which protects the state’s unique ecosystem (as embodied in the native botanicals in the gin), as well as its agricultural economy. The tonic, of course, contains quinine, which is an anti-malarial!

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