The Hot Zone
By Richard Preston

What an incredibly gross, terrifying and amazingly interesting book we read this month!  It was made even better by a super-fun, show-n-tell book club filled with expert knowledge and hands-on experiences (and gourmet food and wine, of course!)

The Hot Zone by Richard Preston is an engrossing book that traces the roots of Ebola from Africa through an outbreak outside of Washington, DC.

First published in 1994, it’s over 20 years old but it is still relevant in describing Ebola and the history of various strains and virology in general.  There are more recent events and new procedures in safety that made for very interesting discussion. Not every book club is fortunate enough to have a member and hostess who is a biosafety laboratory professional and has been the president of the international association for her industry.

But more about that later.  First, the food!

Book Club Food Ideas and Recipes for The Hot Zone

We had a lot of fun with the theme this month!  Our ladies are up for any challenge when it comes to cooking! So much deliciousness!

Our amazing hostess created an African couscous paella.  Here is the recipe from

African couscous paella

She also made wonderful yummy monkey bread, which lead to an interesting discussion about how it got the name monkey bread.  Which led to asking the source of all knowledge …Google…

Monkey bread, also called monkey puzzle bread, sticky bread, African coffee cake, golden crown, pinch-me cake, and pluck-it cake is a soft, sweet, sticky pastry served in the United States for breakfast or as a treat. It consists of pieces of soft baked dough sprinkled with cinnamon.”

Wikipedia says, “The origin of the term “monkey bread” comes from the pastry being a finger food, the consumer would pick apart the bread as a monkey would.”  But we also heard it was because the dough looked like monkey toes.

All I know is that it is incredibly delicious!  Here’s the doughy, buttery, yummy recipe!

We had a Lentil and Fennel Dish with Ricotta and Anchovies.  The recipe is detailed at the end of the post.  It was surprisingly delicious and fresh tasting with the lemon.  I had an anchovy and I didn’t love it but I didn’t hate it either. They’re so salty! But I hear they’re good for you. Isn’t it a fascinating shape?  Like a turtle or skeleton or some creature.

Here’s a gross looking but delicious dish.  Ebola is a string virus, shaped like a tube or noodle, so red beet noodles were perfect!  Someone said she didn’t like beets but enjoyed this.  Roasting them makes them taste less like dirt!  Here’s the recipe for Spiralized Mediterranean Beet and Feta Skillet Bake.

Other wonderful savory dishes included cheese balls with salami and a white pizza with spinach and artichoke hearts.


 The sweets were also wonderful. Homemade banana cream pie and monkey balls,


and coconut macaroons (sooo delicious) and hemorrhagic cupcakes…I’m so sorry I didn’t get a picture of the bloody, oozing cherry filling!!  Love the warning sign she put on them!

Decor for The Hot Zone Book Club

We were warned as we entered…


Our hostess, Melissa, created an awesome table setting that included safety suits for biological and chemical situations, Ebola and Black Plague stuffed “animals” (You can buy them at! who knew!), Moroccan spices, blood sample shooters, “bacteria” Good n Plenties in Petri dishes and all kinds of information about biosafety.



Melissa and her lovely assistant, Mindy, gave a demonstration of how to put on a biosafety suit with HEPA filter and mask.




The Hot Zone: Book Club Discussion

Melissa’s father was an army veterinarian with U.S. Army Veterinary Corps and was a colleague and personal friends with Drs. Jerry and Nancy Jaax, the army veterinarian and pathologist who were key contributors to the Ebola removal operation in Reston, Virginia in 1989 and featured in The Hot Zone.  He shared some background with us and as a special treat, we connected with the Jaaxes, recently retired from working at the Biosecurity Research Institute at Kansas State University, over FaceTime from Maryland to Kansas!  

They were awesome!  They said that, though Richard Preston put a few words in people’s mouths, the details and events of the book were accurate.  The book is accessible to everyone from 4th or 5th graders to microbiologists.

The book gave the public relations and advertising the army couldn’t buy and the Jaaxes were able to give talks while they were still on active duty.  They are still “trotted out as talking heads” any time Ebola experts are needed, like the 2014 doctor and healthcare workers who returned to the U.S. from Africa with Ebola. They said there were so many people who told them they became virologists or veterinarians or biologists because of reading The Hot Zone.

They also talked about the biowarfare and weaponization of viruses and diseases programs in the U.S. and Soviet Union. President Nixon halted the very robust U.S. offensive operations but defensive programs continue.

I asked if they were scared during the operation in Reston and he said, no, “It was cool”  He really enjoyed being a part of things during that time, exploring, learning about uncharted territory!  They were discovering new things. They trusted the protocols and equipment. They said the equipment that was state of the art then is now in high schools. They took their kids to see the monkeys at their offices at USAMRIID.  Now they would be locked up for that!

Jerry Jaax received over 50 vaccinations.  Nancy joked the worst one she got was botulism because not only was the “bot shot” very painful, it made her immune to botox.

We toasted them with test tube blood sample shooters made with cranberry juice, Tito’s vodka, and Malibu rum!


Melissa led a continuation of the discussion. Our group has 4 lab scientists and several nurses so we had a lot of scientific knowledge in the room. Melissa told us about her career and the path that led to it. She has a bachelor’s degree in biology and chemistry with a premed focus, a master’s degree in Environmental Management and an MBA, but there is no degree for what she currently does. ABSA International is creating programs.

She is in charge of the division of research safety and serves as the institutional biosafety officer for a major university medical health system. She tries to make sure everyone goes home healthy and doesn’t bring home anything that could harm their family.

Her focus is in biosafety and biosecurity. There’s a lot to that-conducting biorisk assessments; establishing written biological safety policies and procedures; developing exposure control; emergency response planning; participating on engineering project teams to build or renovate biological laboratories, high containment facilities, and animal facilities; partnering with occupational health professionals to develop and implement medical surveillance programs for personnel working with infectious agents; providing technical advice on shipping, importing and exporting biological materials; auditing biosafety and biosecurity programs; and managing regulated agents and materials. She has other staff that focuses more on the chemical and radiological hazards in the research lab.

Here’s our girl on the job!

She showed us pictures from the lab where she works and the latest in safety equipment and procedures. We talked about recent situations in the news including bird flu, MERS, and smallpox. We also talked about movies like Outbreak and Contagion.  Jerry Jaax had contrasted Hollywood’s version of how things work versus real life.  Melissa and the Jaaxes agreed that Contagion was the real experience.

This may have been the best book club ever! The book was a unanimous thumbs up for everyone. It was awesome!  It was fun and we learned a lot.  Here’s another recipe!  Happy reading!!!

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Lentil and Fennel Dish with Ricotta and Anchovies


4 tablespoons olive oil, plus more to drizzle
Pinch of red chili flakes
Zest and juice of ½ lemon
2 cups green or black lentils
1 head garlic, halved crosswise
2 sprigs fresh sage
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 medium heads fennel, halved lengthwise
2 cups fresh ricotta
2 tablespoons chopped parsley

Anchovies, if desired.


Place lentils in a heavy, medium pot with both garlic-head halves and sage. Cover lentils with 2 inches water and add 2 tablespoons olive oil. Set pot over high heat and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to medium and simmer lentils until tender but still whole, about 20 minutes. If necessary, add extra water to keep lentils submerged throughout cooking. Strain lentils and season with salt, pepper and a drizzle of olive oil.

Slice fennel into very thin slivers. If fennel is woody, sprinkle with lemon juice to soften. Season with 2 tablespoons olive oil and salt and pepper to taste.

Place ½ cup ricotta on each plate. Season cheese with salt and arrange dressed fennel on top. Spoon lentils generously over fennel. Top with a drizzle of olive oil and chopped parsley and anchovies, if desired.

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