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.

Heads bandaged.

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.


Martina Evans

*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).


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