We have seen thee, queen of cheese

The orig­i­nal 7,300 lb Mam­moth Cheese of 1866, depart­ing its birth­place in Inger­soll, Ontario.

I’m doing a lit­tle research on Cana­di­an lit­er­a­ture of the 19th cen­tu­ry. This is not a field that over­whelms the researcher with an abun­dance of mas­ter­pieces. Cana­da, at this time, was an emp­ty, rugged, pio­neer­ing place, vague­ly British in the soci­ety of its small urban elite, but for most peo­ple cul­tur­al­ly clos­er the the west­ern parts of the Unit­ed States. Mon­tre­al had a mod­est lit­er­ary life in French, draw­ing on sev­er­al cen­turies of folk­lore and even pro­duc­ing a few operas. These works were unknown in the rest of the French-speak­ing world. Eng­lish-speak­ing Mon­treal­ers were more inter­est­ed in com­merce than cul­ture. Out­side of Mon­tre­al, the only real city, there was not much oth­er than small towns, farms and wilderness. 

But in the Vic­to­ri­an Age, Cana­di­an farm­ers and lum­ber­jacks read quite a bit. Many years ago, I worked as a farm hand in rur­al Ontario. I often made deals with elder­ly farm cou­ples to take in hay, or tend live­stock, in exchange for the col­lec­tions of old books that their par­ents and grand­par­ents had hid­den away in base­ments and barns. Most had been gath­er­ing dust (or hay twigs) for as much as a cen­tu­ry. In this way, I built up an impres­sive col­lec­tion of nine­teenth cen­tu­ry books, includ­ing a beau­ti­ful com­plete set of Wal­ter Scott, and I also got a good impres­sion of what ordi­nary Cana­di­ans actu­al­ly read. There were, of course, numer­ous books of ser­mons and exhor­ta­tions to reli­gious piety, and pop­u­lar mag­a­zines. Some of these, like The Strand, and Lip­pin­cot­t’s Month­ly, had very high stan­dards of con­tent and style. Farm­ers were much involved in nation­al pol­i­tics and the urgent reforms of the day. But they also read more lit­er­ary stuff. The same books turned up over and over again. These were the Sacred Texts, the four cor­ner­stones of Cana­di­an Cul­ture of the time: the poems of Robert Burns, the nov­els of Wal­ter Scott and Charles Dick­ens, and the plays of Shake­speare. The first two tes­ti­fy to the over­whelm­ing influ­ence of Scot­tish cul­ture in Cana­da, at the time. The Amer­i­cans Longfel­low, Emer­son and Mark Twain were pop­u­lar, but they did not have the same exalt­ed sta­tus. Among more con­tem­po­rary Eng­lish writ­ers there were Ten­nyson, Brown­ing, and the now for­got­ten, but at the time immense­ly respect­ed Edwin Arnold, who wrote a book-length life of the Bud­dha in verse, and who was inor­di­nate­ly fond of excla­ma­tion points. Dour Cana­di­an pio­neers were strange­ly famil­iar with lines such as:

Ah! Blessed Lord! Oh, high deliverer!
For­give this fee­ble script, which doth thee wrong,
Mea­sur­ing with lit­tle wit thy lofty love.
Ah! Lover! Broth­er! Guide! Lamp of the Law!
I take my refuge in Thy name and Thee!
I take my refuge in Thy law of good!
I take my refuge in Thy order! OM!
The dew is on the lotus! — Rise, Great Sun!
And lift my leaf and mix me with the wave.
Om mani padme hum, the sun­rise comes!
The dew­drop slips into the shin­ing sea!

It is hard, how­ev­er, to imag­ine that the doc­trines of Sam­sara, Kar­ma and Mad­hya­ma-prati­pad exer­cised much influ­ence on the flinty Pres­by­te­ri­ans and Methodists of Ontario farm coun­try, no mat­ter how many excla­ma­tion points were hurled at them. 

For teenagers, the adven­ture nov­els of G. A. Hen­ty and R. M. Bal­lan­tyne (who spent his youth in Cana­da, and set much of his fic­tion here), were ubiquitous.

The only Cana­di­an-born nov­el­ist read inter­na­tion­al­ly in the mid-19th cen­tu­ry was John Richard­son (Wacous­ta [1832] & The Cana­di­an Broth­ers [1840]). In Vic­to­ri­an era Cana­da, even the hum­blest cit­i­zens were not only expect­ed to read poet­ry, but to write it. Some even man­aged to find read­ers out­side the coun­try. Pre-emi­nent among them was Pauline John­son [Tekahion­wake], the Mohawk poet whose cel­e­bra­tions of Native Cana­di­an cul­ture in verse reached an inter­na­tion­al audi­ence. It is inter­est­ing that the two inter­na­tion­al­ly known writ­ers in Cana­da were both of Native Cana­di­an ori­gin (Richard­son was an Odawa). Richard­son’s work has fad­ed into obscu­ri­ty, but John­son is still read, and her poems have con­sid­er­able charm. 

But out­side of these mod­est lit­er­ary achieve­ments, there was a del­uge of ter­ri­ble verse, ground out by local eccentrics in small towns across the land. Of these, few can have reached the Olympian heights of hor­ri­ble­ness achieved by James McIn­tyre of Inger­soll, Ontario. McIn­tyre wrote most­ly about cheese, a sub­ject which he con­tem­plat­ed with the same enthu­si­asm that Bun­yan con­tem­plat­ed sal­va­tion and Wordsworth con­tem­plat­ed the infi­nite. Cheese was the cen­ter of McIn­tyre’s epis­te­mol­o­gy, escha­tol­ogy, and meta­physics. One poem, The Oxford Ode to Cheese, reads:

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. 
 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.

14-07-18 BLOG The Original Mammoth Cheese

The orig­i­nal 7,300 lb Mam­moth Cheese of 1866

But his mas­ter­piece was undoubt­ed­ly Ode on the Mam­moth Cheese Weigh­ing over 7,000 Pounds (1866), which I must quote in its entirety:

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.

We’rt thou sus­pend­ed from balloon,
You’d cast a shade even at noon,
Folks would think it was the moon
About to fall and crush them soon.

What can one say? McIn­tyre was appar­ent­ly a very nice man, beloved in his com­mu­ni­ty, and sin­cere in his ded­i­ca­tion to the muse. In poem after poem, he cel­e­brat­ed the delights of tur­ophil­ia, and pride in the agri­cul­tur­al achieve­ments of Ontario. If you have ever sam­pled some of the bet­ter coun­try cheeses of this province, such as Har­row­smith or Balder­son­’s, you might be tempt­ed to place them on the same plane as sal­va­tion or the infi­nite. In fact, I would dare to place them on a high­er plane. I don’t real­ly have a han­dle on the infi­nite, and I don’t believe in sal­va­tion beyond the grave, but I can appre­ci­ate a good cheese.

14-07-18 BLOG The New Mammoth Cheese

A repli­ca of the Mam­moth Cheese made by The Inger­soll Cheese Co., for Ingersoll’s Cen­ten­ni­al cel­e­bra­tion in 1952.

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