A Dangerous Idea: Toasted Cheese*
‘Truly man is the king of beasts, for his brutality exceeds them. We live by the death of others. We are burial places… Endless numbers of these animals shall have their little children taken from them, ripped open, and barbarously slaughtered.
- Leonardo Da Vinci Notebooks
Cheese digests all but itself. Mighty cheese.
- Have you a cheese sandwich?
- Yes sir.
Ulysses James Joyce
Toasted cheese featured in one of my earliest picture books –
Granddad on the mountain toasting a slice on the end
of a long fork in an abridged edition of Heidi.
Daddy brought home strange lumps of leftover
rubbery stuff for the cats although they seemed
to prefer Cadburys milk chocolate. I never stopped
to think where the neverending stream of milk came from -
milk and whey was and is in everything
and especially at Rathduff Cheese factory –
stories of workers falling into outsize vats
like the giant saucepans of fairy tales
these vats couldn’t possibly be filled by the work
of homely milkmaids on three legged stools.
The cruel river of milk came from elsewhere, like babies
and the weird dreams caused by eating cheese.
I’m thinking of toasted Emmenthal sandwiches -
the holey cheese reminiscent of cute mice in cartoons -
while reading Joyce’s Lestragonians with whole-body prickling horror
and still envying broken-hearted Bloom
his Gorgonzola and Burgundy,
sitting up at the polished counter in Byrnes.
Take away that. Lubricate. A nice salad, cool as a cucumber.
Tom Kernan can dress. And Costcutters might sell Stilton.
Better to get it all over in one go,
stay up late tonight for once and for all
eating everything on The Cheese Board. God Almighty,
when major crimes are being committed,
elephants butchered alive for their ivory -
can I not have a bit of cheese and tomato
and maybe some olives as well
but meh Bloom said wretched brutes waiting at the cattle market
and I wept over Staggering Bob – veal from a butchered
tottering day-old calf. It’s easier for people to think his
mother doesn’t care so they can glug down his milk,
or cream or crème fraiche or White Russians.
Why are the cows lowing?
Waiting to be pole-axed, Moo. Poor trembling calves.
That farm in the Cotswolds, Easter 1999
Liadain got to milk Buttercup the single Jersey
cow on a sheep farm full of double-jointed jumping lambs
pure Eden until we discovered Billy the calf with the chocolate curls locked
away in the dark. ‘His mother’s milk is too rich for
him,’ the farmer was smiling at the soft city slickers.
He hoped for another Gulf War, he said war was good for
the farmers, it was evening when he said that and
the sun seemed to be shooting into the earth as he spoke.
And Billy cried as Buttercup lowed and looked picturesque
in the dusk like a romantic wrapper on a bar
of Swiss chocolate. Or one of those Anchor cows getting ready
to play football on a TV ad. And I can’t stand any of it.
Packets of M&S sirloin wrapped with
pictures of dappled meadows and photos of
Honest John farmers. Bloom said it. We’re all savages,
bad savages. If you can imagine cows
frolicking with footballs, then you must imagine their pain.
If the rich want to slobber in cruelty, don’t make up stories
of happy foie gras, Fortnum and Mason.
Grandmother Cotter and the servants laughed indulgently
when Daddy cried for his calf going to market.
‘Like a pure spoilt fool over animals all his life,’ Mammy said.
Uncle Tommy was a proper man. ‘And don’t forget no one loved
horses more’. Tommy bred greyhounds for coursing
maintained that to see a cat relaxing in a yard was a sign
the dogs were ‘pure useless’
It is tiring and painful, easier to let it go. Like
when the Brits accused the Boers of using Dumdum bullets
which they invented themselves for India, the Boers said
they only used them on the blacks or the elephants and everyone
said okay then… White missionary too salty, mutters Bloom
the outcast, ruminating on cannibals. Like pickled pork.
Expect the chief consumes the parts of honour. Cauls, mouldy tripes
windpipes, faked and minced up. With regards
to the exploitation of cows, surely not, my sister said in the
old patronising voice, Bubble and squeak. Butchers’ buckets wobble lights.
Give us that brisket off the hook. Plup. Surely not, they said
when the Jews were melted down for lampshades
and soap. Rawhead and bloody bones. Flayed glasseyed sheep hung
from their haunches, sheepsnouts bloodypapered snivelling nosejam
on sawdust. Top and lashers going out and still I’m heading
for the door, ripping up the zip of my Parka,
stopping to tie my shoelaces tight when
‘A minute on the lips, forever on the hips’, says
another disembodied voice from the 70s.
Substituting conscience for hips does the trick
for now. I go out into the crisp-leaved October night,
not seeing the amberglowing copper beech on Balls Pond Road
but windowless artificially-lit factory-farm sheds, hiding
in the dark countryside, their drugged-up
desensitised workers reaping their depraved harvest.
Who on earth thinks these people are chosen
for their humanity? Peace and war depend
on some fellow’s digestion. Religions.
Christmas turkeys and geese. Slaughter of innocents.
Eat, drink and be merry. Then casual wards full after.
Kneel for a while with the fruit jellies,
peering at the tiny print– it’s gelatin in every bag and
the E120 in Skittles comes from the Brazilian Cochineal insects
boiled alive. 70,000 make one pound of natural cochineal stain
so mothers won’t have to worry about hyperactivity
and the sweets are still seduction red.
Am I pure spoilt too like Daddy?
What about big Brazilian families with mouths to feed?
Mouths, mouths, and worst of all, the hungry famished gull
of my own mouth now. I buy 4 Mr Tom
Turkish peanut brittle bars eat them all in one go,
still thinking of Bloom and his Gorgonzola.
Splintering Mr Tom savagely between my teeth,
I try not to think of other nights of temptation
streaming out ahead of me as I watch Taking
Root a documentary about Wangari Maathai
and her Kenyan women, getting over Colinisation,
planting trees. Later, I dream that I’ve joined the Mau Mau
wake late in a room full of sun with hungry cats
poking at me. One more day,
a murderer reprieved.
*Inspiration for poem taken from www.edge.org “what is your dangerous idea?”
Martina Evans (née Cotter) is a poet and novelist. She grew up in County Cork in a country pub, shop and petrol station. Her works include four poetry books - ‘The Iniscarra Bar and Cycle Rest’ (1995), ‘All Alcoholics Are Charmers’ (1998), ‘Can Dentists Be Trusted?’ (2004) and ‘Facing the Public’ (2009) – and she has also published three novels: ‘Midnight Feast’ (1996), ‘The Glass Mountain’ (1997) and ‘No Drinking No Dancing No Doctors’ (2000).
Her latest work is a book of poetry: ‘Petrol’ (2012).