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I once owned a cat that ate strawberries.

Some of you may remember my farewell to my beloved tiger cat, Siren Stumptail.  She was a sleek, opinionated beauty with vivid green eyes, elegant lines thanks to her Siamese ancestry, and a voice could cut through sheet steel when she was in the mood.  Her purr was lovely and warm, she greeted me every morning when I woke, and there was almost nothing she loved more than to bask in a sunbeam until her fur was too hot for human touch to abide.

The big exception was fruit.  

Yes, I know that cats are obligate carnivores who must eat meat to stay healthy.  Yes, I know that cats aren't supposed to be able taste sweet things due to the way their taste buds have evolved.  Yes, I know that cats are supposed to prefer flesh, fowl, and fish to all vegetables, and that vegans who attempt to feed their felines an all-plant diet are doing their cats no favors.

I know all that.  I've owned cats for twenty-nine years, and believe me, I know what they're supposed to eat.

Too bad no one told Siren that.

I first realized that the cat had, shall we say, unique taste in food on a fine summer night in early June, about two months after Siren had been dumped on my enclosed front porch.  The kitten, lean and shiny and very, very lively, had chased the adult cats upstairs and was now busily savaging a catnip mouse.  Wingding was away for the weekend so I was getting ready to watch TV and do a little quilting after dinner.  Since I had a pint of fresh, local strawberries, I sliced up a bowlful, sprinkled on some sugar, and sat down to enjoy my treat while watching whatever movie was least idiotic.

I'd scarcely stuck my spoon into the bowl when I heard a loud, excited SQUEE!!! on my right.  There was a thumping sound, and before I could do more than raise my eyebrows, Siren had leapt onto the arm of my chair, squealed again, and shoved her nose into my bowl of berries.

I jerked the bowl out of range before she could actually grab one and stared down at her.  She stared back, her whiskers quivering, and meowed loudly enough that it was clear why Wingding had decided to name her "Siren."

"This is fruit," I said after a moment.  "You won't like it."

"MRAOW!!!!" said Siren, and tried to scramble across my chest, claws out, to claim her share.  "MRAAAAAAAAAAOOOOOOOWWWWWWWW!!!!!!"

I grabbed a berry, held it front of her twitching little nose, and chucked it across the room.  "See for yourself, you won't - "

Siren lunged forward, threw herself on the berry like Lord Byron upon a chambermaid -

"like it - "

- gobbled the berry -

"HOLY CRAP WHAT ARE YOU DOING?"

- and vaulted back into my lap, juice on her lips and whiskers, and shoved her little face into the bowl again.

I jerked the bowl up and out of range for the second time.  "You're a cat.  You aren't supposed to like this!"

Siren let out an earsplitting screech that she wouldn't equal until the first (and last) time she went into heat, then attempted to scale my arm to get to the strawberries.  Clearly she not only didn't know that she wasn't supposed to eat fruit, she didn't much care.

At that point I did the only thing I could do...and if you're thinking "Ellid caved and shared the berries with the allegedly carnivorous cat," give yourself a prize from the Heck Piazza Dodecaplex's Snatch 'n Grab Claw O' Joy.  Siren ate about a third of the bowl of strawberries, tossed one by one onto the floor as I ate, and if you had told me that cats were unable to enjoy the sweetness of ripe fruit because of their physiology, I would have laughed until I was in tears.

Naturally I tole Wingding about Siren's little culinary adventure when he got home.  He laughed heartily, but I'm not sure he believed me.  Cats are not supposed to eat fruit, and as this appeared to be a perfectly normal example of the Felis Cattus, juvenile female, he had good reason to question my account…

Until a few weeks later, when Siren quite literally climbed up his arm, squealed like a penny whistle, and took a nice big chomp out of the banana he'd been eating while he read the Sunday sports pages.  

"She's eating my banana! What the hell?" he exclaimed, eyes halfway out of their sockets as he stared at the kitten.  She'd wrapped all four little legs around his wrist and lower arm, and was purring madly as she devoured what had started out as his breakfast.

"That she is."  I folded my arms across my chest.  "She seems to be enjoying herself, too."

"Cats don't eat bananas!"

"This one does," I said, as Siren, who'd finished her snack, began laying waste to the peel.  

Over the next few weeks we discovered that Siren also liked potato chips (she crawled completely into a large bag of Lay's and emerged covered in grease and crumbs), popcorn, tortilla chips, blueberries, sliced tomatoes with French dressing, and green peppers.  "What weird crap will the kitten eat this time?" replaced television reruns in our house, and by the time we finally moved on to more high brow entertainments like professional wrestling and amateur hockey, we'd learned that the only things Siren refused to touch were roasted peanuts, Rold Gold pretzels, and unpeeled grapes.  She liked the peeled kind just fine.

This is not to say that Siren turned up her nose at traditional feline sustenance such as fish.  She loved tuna to the point of distraction, with dairy not far behind, and as the years passed she ate less and less strange foods and more and more cat food.  Alas, she eventually developed a lactose intolerance, as I found out one fine night when she lapped up the remains from a bowl of ice cream, then yowled plaintively, projectile vomited for several minutes, and had explosive diarrhea near (but not in) the litter box in the bathroom.

Do.  Not.  Ask.

I didn't let her have ice cream, cheese, or milk after that.  But strawberries she loved to the day she died, and I still have pictures of her chowing down on a nice juicy one about a month before the end.

She was an original, my little noisy cat.

Siren may not have been able to eat dairy products, but the same cannot be said about tonight's featured author.  Born in Britain, he eventually emigrated to Canada, where he lived a perfectly blameless life in every way…except for his twin obsessions:  poetry (terrible) and cheese (the bigger the better).

Come with me below the Dkos .05 kaiju, good friends and readers all, and meet James McIntyre, the poet laureate of what the young people have quaintly termed "cow juice"….

 

James McIntyre was, like so many terrible poets, a self-educated man of letters.  A native of Forres, Scotland, he was born to Peter Macintyre and his charmingly named wife Primrose in the early years of the 19th century.  Being an ambitious youngser, he emigrated to Canada at the tender age of fourteen, working for several years as a hired man before making his home in St. Catherines, Ontario, near Niagara Falls.  There he married, fathered children, and sold furniture, not necessarily in that order.

Eventually he tired of St. Catherine's and moved to a little town called Ingersoll, a bucolic community of 5,000 unsuspecting dairy farmers on the banks of the Thames River.  There McIntyre opened his own furniture factory that also made musical instruments of the keyboard persuasion, and sold furniture, pianos and pianolas, and coffins (?).  The said friends and neighbors worked in McIntyre's factory, bought McIntyre's his wares in good times, and loaned him money in bad, and as the years passed he became a fixture in local fraternal and political circles.

He also worked on and off as an undertaker, which certainly made for the sort of unusually diverse background that stands an aspiring writer in good stead.

McIntyre began writing sometime in the 1860's, when he joined what passed for a literary society in Ingersoll.  He soon attracted a following and became a fixture at social events in and around town, as much for his charming personality and ability as a public speaker as for his literary talent of which he had none.  

Emboldened by local success, McIntyre decided to go for the gusto.  He began sending his poetry to established writers, who somehow refrained from laughing hysterically when they got an eyeful of his alleged verse.  Soon he was being published in the Toronto Globe (which ran his poems as comic relief, not that he seemed to have cared) and the New York Tribune.  He even sent a poem about Lord Strathcona's Horse (the regiment, not the animal) to Lord Strathcona, who was either very pleased or highly amused, since he sent McIntyre $100.00 as a thank you gift.

Talk about a horsefeather in your cap!  

Along the way McIntyre published two books, 1884's Musings on the banks of the Canadian Thames, including poems on local, Canadian, and British subjects, and lines on the great poets of England, Ireland, Scotland and America, with a glance at the wars in Victoria's reign (whew!) and 1889's Poems of James McIntyre.  These worthy efforts, which can almost be read without inhaling one's food and drink into the wrong respiratory passages, were right down up there with the likes of Julia Moore, the Sweet Singer of Michigan, and William Topaz McGonagall, the legendary performance artist/versifier who graced Dundee for so many years.  That his verse was, to be blunt, less than polished is evident from the following examples:

On Doctor Gardener

Gardner told a sad tale of woe,
How he was oft o'erwhelmed in snow
But was he frightened ? no ! no ! ! no ! ! !
He onward cheerfully did go,
And though that he did freeze his cheek
The fire side he did never seek,
But straight went onward, in his course,
So happy, driving his good horse,
And merrily along the way
The bells did ring around his sleigh.

Guess he treated his frostbite himself, eh?

And then there was McIntyre's ode on the use of exotic fowl to combat the potato bug:

When we do trace out nature's laws,
And view effects, and muse on cause,
For the future there's great hope
If we our eyes do only ope.
With joy they will often glisten,
If to truth one doth but listen ;
But people often turn deaf ear
And what is useful will not hear.

Now for a minute, lend your luggs [sic],
Our theme, it is potato bugs.
Just buy a pair of young peafowl,
Their voice may be like to screech owl,
But soon as the potato shows
You there will find the peafowl goes,
Up one row and down the other
Like loving sister with brother.

And you will find that down their muggs
Have disappeared potato bugs,
Theres no more need of Paris green
For they will keep potatoes clean.
And faithful they will work all day,
For to them 'tis gay sport and play ;
No more you need their voice bewail,
But admire beauties of the tail.

If anyone out there has actually raised potatoes and can explain what this means, I'd be obliged.

And then there's this greeting to the Prince of Wales, which certainly should have gotten McIntyre a position as Poet Laureate if only that hack Lord Tennyson hadn't gotten there first:

In his long voyage o'er the sea,
To where doth grow the maple tree,
May he be blest with pleasant gales-
The coming man, the Prince of Wales.

The Maple grows but in good soil,
Where nature doth reward for toil.
The farmer, splitting his fence rails,
He welcome bids the Prince of Wales.

In the woods the axe is ringing,
And the yeoman merry singing ;
The song resounds o'er hills and dales -
Our future king, the Prince of Wales.

'Round the brow of our future chief
We'll weave a wreath of maple leaf,
For o'er broad Canada prevails
Kind feelings to the Prince of Wales.

When in this land the Prince arrives
May he have many pleasant drives,
And on our lakes have merry sails -
Great king of princes, Prince of Wales.

"Great king of princes."  

Yes.  Really.

These are only a few of the poetical works of this amazing and multitalented undertaker/piano maker/lodge brotehr/poet.  As terrible worthy as they are, however, they are by no means McIntyre's most memorable, not by a long shot.  That honor must be reserved for McIntyre's many, and uniformly awful, poems devoted to cheese.

McIntyre was not the first person to write bad poems about cheese.  A century earlier John Armstron had begun an ode to the most famous product of Cheddar, England, by calling it "tenacious paste of solid milk," which thank God has never been used as either a civic motto or advertising slogan.  However, McIntyre is certainly the most prolific, and least talented, cheese poet in English.  He wrote over a dozen poems about his favorite dairy product, with notable examples dedicated to dairymen, dairy maids, one Father Ranney "the Cheese Pioneer," and the cheesemakers of Oxford (Canada, not England):

The ancient poets ne'er did dream
That Canada was land of cream,
They ne'er imagined it could flow
In this cold land of ice and snow,
Where everything did solid freeze,
They ne'er hoped or looked for cheese.

A few years since our Oxford farms
Were nearly robbed of all their charms,
O'er cropped the weary land grew poor
And nearly barren as a moor,
But now the owners live at ease
Rejoicing in their crop of cheese.

And since they justly treat the soil,
Are well rewarded for their toil,
The land enriched by goodly cows,
Yie'ds plenty now to fill their mows,
Both wheat and barley, oats and peas
But still their greatest boast is cheese.

And you must careful fill your mows
With good provender for your cows,
And in the winter keep them warm,
Protect them safe all time from harm,
For cows do dearly love their ease,
Which doth insure best grade of cheese.

To us it is a glorious theme
To sing of milk and curds and cream,
Were it collected it could float
On its bosom, small steam boat,
Cows numerous as swarm of bees
Are milked in Oxford to make cheese.

If that isn't enough, McIntyre also offered advice to aspiring cheesemakers:
All those who quality do prize
Must study color, taste and size
And keep their dishes clean and sweet,
And all things round their factories neat,
For dairymen insist that these
Are all important points in cheese.

Grant has here a famous work
Devoted to the cause of pork.
For dairymen find that it doth pay
To fatten pigs upon the whey,
For there is money raising grease
As well as in the making cheese.

as well as encouragement to the local dairy farmers during an economic slump:

Price soon will rise, though now 'tis low,
And brooks of milk will onward flow ;
Were it collected in one stream
There would be floods of milk and cream.
As great as the above works are, however, they cannot match McIntyre's supreme achievement, the crown of his career, the single greatest literary work devoted to dairy products in the history of the English language.  It's not the longest of poems, nor the most elaborate in terms of language, but that is not necessarily a bad thing.  I mean, seriously - if this were as long as, say, The Rape of the Lock or The Odyssey, I wouldn't be able to quote the entire thing for your delectation on this fine spring evening:
Ode on the Mammoth Cheese Weighing Over Seven Thousand Pounds

We have seen thee, queen of cheese,
Lying quietly at your ease,
Gently fanned by evening breeze,
Thy fair form no flies dare seize.

All gaily dressed soon you'll go
To the great Provincial show,
To be admired by many a beau
In the city of Toronto.

Cows numerous as a swarm of bees,
Or as the leaves upon the trees,
It did require to make thee please
And stand unrivalled, queen of cheese.

May you not receive a scar as
We have heard that Mr. Harris
Intends to send you off as far as
The great world's show at Paris.

Of the youth beware of these,
For some of them might rudely squeeze
And bite your cheek, then songs or glees
We could not sing, oh! queen of cheese.

Were't thou suspended from a balloon,
You'd cast a shade even at noon,
Folks would think it was the moon
About to fall and crush them soon.

Isn't that amazing?  Isn't that truly...unique?  Isn't the imagery of balloons, fans, and fine clothing enough to suggest that this greatest of foodstuffs was the very picture of a monarch, lolling at her ease as her servitors adorned her for the ultimate experience of her existence?  That this cheese was indeed a woman, and a wondrous one at that?

Don't you wish you could have seen her?  Lauded her immense dairyness?  Smelled her glory?  Tasted her salty goodness?  Aren't you aching for the sustenance that only such a marvelous creation can bring?  

Aren't you hungry?

McIntyre died in 1906 in Ingersoll, where his legacy was continued for another twenty years by his equally talentless daughter Kate.  The good folk of his adopted home, who still love James McIntyre one century and several affectionately mocking books about their most famous son later, honor his memory with an annual cheese-themed poetry contest.  None of the efforts has so far reached the empyrean heights of McIntyre's verse, but as you can tell by the following entry by one Stephanie McDonald, it's only a matter of time:

LOVELY CHEESE

Cheddar is yellow Swiss is white
Together they make an appetizing delight
Add some bread Add some butter
Now you have grilled cheese for supper.

Doesn't that just tickle your taste buds?

%%%%%

Have you ever had Canadian cheese?  Written a poem about your favorite food?  Made a piano?  Eaten a grilled cheese sandwich while playing the piano?  Ever heard of James McIntyre?  Would you admit it if you had?  It's Saturday night and you know what that means....

%%%%%

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Originally posted to Readers and Book Lovers on Sat Apr 26, 2014 at 06:00 PM PDT.

Also republished by Community Spotlight.

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