Fiction: The Story of Canada

The Big Cheese

The Big Cheese

Toyler’s chest was tight; he hadn’t drawn a full breath yet this morning. May 24th, the Queen’s birthday, chosen for its auspiciousness by his employer Mr. Harris, who believed in such things. (Toyler was a man of science.) Below where he stood on the top step, the steel sides of the vat sloped inwards. Everything had that brand-new gleam, never used before, not intended to be used ever again after this experiment.

The two workmen were waiting. Toyler counted his fingers behind his back. (If people saw him do it, they became nervous.) “Pour,” he ordered, as shrill as a girl. The men lifted the first 20-gallon can over the edge and tipped the milk in, with a bright, echoing splash.

There were carts lined up outside Mr. Harris’s factory with cans from Ranney’s and Galloway’s; every drop the cows of Oxford County had yielded this morning was on its way. Toyler considered it’d been well worth the effort to convince Mr. Harris to wait till Ontario’s heavy snowpack had melted and the trees were in bloom; early spring milk was thin stuff, compared with this creamy flood. Now the men were hurling can after can of fresh milk into the vat; it seemed as if they could work forever and not fill it up. Toyler knew it could do no good for him to stand and watch; after all, if any of the milk was on the turn, he wasn’t going to spot it by staring till his eyes stung. He’d told the men to give each can a hard sniff before tipping it in, but could he trust their noses? He used to have a fine one himself, but years in this factory had dulled it. And if the vast vat turned sour, the whole lot would have to be given to the pigs.

Toyler had felt it his duty to impress on Mr. Harris the hazards attendant on this extravagant speculation. “Not only immediate and catastrophic monetary loss, sir, but lasting damage to your reputation and that of this whole concern.”

The factory owner had smirked over his walnut desk. “What a stick-in-the-mud you are, young Toyler. Where’s the spirit of the wild Irish?”

“I do not.…” Toyler had been going to say he did not have any, but that had a pathetic ring to it. “I could be said to be a Canadian now, sir. My parents brought me here at the age of –”

Mr. Harris spoke across him. “And are we Canadians entirely devoid of entrepreneurial spirit?”

“Ah, no, sir.”

“High time we showed those Yankees our muscle, especially now their markets are in disarray after the War between the States. Perhaps I should advertise for some up-and-coming cheeseman to replace you as my manager?”

“No need, Mr. Harris.” His pulse like a desperate fish in his throat. “I mean to make you the biggest cheese in the history of the world.”

Toyler forced himself to turn away from the vat, now, and descend the scaffold. (One step, two step, three step, four step.) If he stood over the men, it would only put their backs up. He’d already heard mutterings about this lunatic scheme.

His hands were quivering like butterflies, so he kept them in his pockets. More than ever the young manager felt his limitations. He had been the kind of child the Irish called quare. The taciturn uncle who’d raised him after the yellow fever had taken Toyler’s parents had done nothing to change the boy’s nature. There were whole areas of life – apple bees, gossip, music-making, walking out with girls – that were foreign territory to Toyler. He was good at making cheese. In the evenings, he cooked his chop, brushed his small house, pared his nails to the quick and read the latest publications on the dairy industry.

He’d been perfectly content as an assistant curd-miller. When Mr. Harris had pressed the promotion on him, Toyler had been so shaken, he’d had to excuse himself to go and vomit. It wasn’t the title of manager that had tempted him, nor the wages; only the tantalizing prospect of bringing the Harris factory up to the mark of the very best cheese manufacturies in Ontario. Perhaps in Canada. Even the world.

But Toyler would never be a good manager of men. If he’d been the kind of man who could make a speech, for instance, he would have gathered all 100-odd workers this morning and thundered, Forget your aching feet, your debts, your dinner pail, your newborn. We have a high ambition: to win fame and a universal hunger for Ingersoll cheddar. This is your moment, if ever you get one: You have been enrolled in the grandest enterprise of your life!

Instead, what had he said? “Pour.”

That afternoon was the tri-factory baseball game in honour of the Queen’s Birthday. Toyler stayed in his office. He had calculations to work on, ratios to mull over.

Most of the 5,000 inhabitants of Ingersoll were at the game, with their lemonade, their little bristling flags, their raucous children and floppy babies. All these families were depending on Toyler: a fact which sat like an iron collar on his Adam’s apple. The farmers had deferred payment for today’s milk; the workers at the Noxon Implement Company had manufactured the machines to Toyler’s specifications.

“Was it difficult to persuade the other factory owners to go thirds on the costs of labour and equipment?” he’d asked his employer, earlier.

“Transport,” Mr. Harris had said, with a chuckle. “That was the sticking point.”

“Transport?” Toyler had repeated blankly.

“Why, you don’t imagine our wondrous Cheese is going to languish out its days in little Ingersoll?”

Until that moment, Toyler had been supposing that the fame of a 7,000-pound cheddar would spread on its own. He was quite shaken by the news the Mr. Harris had got it invited to the New York State Fair already.

Toyler counted his fingers on his desk, now, warding off a wave of panic. The Cheese did not exist yet. How could it have a travel itinerary?

He went to the vat room now and stared into the deep white bath of milk, inhaling the rich hot scent. Twenty men could drown at once in this. He lowered the thermometer into the milk one more time: 86 degrees, almost blood heat. Now was the moment. Toyler was glad to be alone for this. He lifted the can of starter and poured it in. He’d always found it a marvellous coincidence that rennet was made of calves’ stomachs: one bit of the beast catalyzing another.

The milk began to curdle almost at once. Toyler felt like a Druid. Had any of his forefathers back in County Clare worked such magic?

He was tempted to stay all night, but remembering the proverb about the watched pot, he forced himself to leave, locking the room behind him. He unlocked it, then locked it again, twice more, just to set his mind at rest.

That night Toyler dreamed of a creamy river rushing along, and himself carried in its flow, a tiny gingerbread man, soaked limbs ripping away.

He arrived at the factory the next morning an hour before anyone else. The vat was full of curds, floating in watery whey. He had never seen this routine transformation on such a massive scale, and it thrilled him so much, his skin felt like stretched India rubber. He opened the drain at the bottom of the vat that let the whey drain off into a series of barrels. The mountain of moist curds was a silken white. (The English dyed their cheddar orange, but Ingersoll cheese had no need of cosmetics.)

Today was the trickiest task, the cheddaring. It took two men to operate the gigantic levers of the contraption that would chop the curds into marbles and turn them over. “Steady, now, steady,” Toyler murmured, as they lowered the blades into the vat. “Don’t forget, it is imperative to turn the curds every quarter-hour,” pointing to the wall-mounted brass clock. But would the workmen remember to look at the clock? Perhaps he shouldn’t have reminded them. Now they might neglect the curds to spite their fusspot of a manager.…

Toyler went back 14 minutes later and stood outside the room, straining to hear the two men’s sporadic conversation. He was about to burst in, to denounce them as saboteurs, but he dug his teeth into his lips and made himself wait another minute. Finally, just before the 16th minute, he recognized the sound of the curd-mill in action. So they had remembered, at least this time.

Hunched over his desk, Toyler kept toying with the figures. The sheer size of the Cheese altered everything: the proportion of exposed surface area to weight; the internal temperature.… What if the machines cracked under the pressure, and spilled a stinking mess all over the floor? Toyler groaned to think how much of his science was guesswork. How long should the curds be milled, for instance? He made himself wait till the end of the morning before going back to the milk room and pressing a shred of curd between finger and thumb. A trifle too rubbery? If so, it was too late to do anything about it. Seven-thousand pounds of mediocre cheese: The name of Ingersoll would be a laughingstock to the nations. No brooding, he told himself, tongue counting teeth with infinitesimal flickerings. On with the work.

The huge curd-press hadn’t yet turned up from the Noxon Company down the road, so Toyler sent a boy with a sharp note. The wagon toiled into the yard that afternoon. It took the men three hours to get the press off the wagon, take it apart to fit it through the factory doors, and reassemble all the steel and wooden parts inside. The knocking-off bell was ringing before all the screws and nuts had been tightened to Toyler’s satisfaction. The sweating workers began to file out of the factory, but he kept four of them back.

They seemed sullen, so he hinted at a bonus. It was all the eloquence he could summon. The room was fiery hot now; the boiler had brought the cheese vat up to 100 degrees. When the men opened the wide pipe from the vat, the curds began their avalanche into the press. A steaming hillock rose, like hot snow. Something in Toyler’s stomach unknotted. Good milk, good curds, he told himself, why should it not be a good cheese? He was struck by a sudden memory of his mother on her small stool, crooning fondly: So, so, my bossy, so, alannah, so. Was that in Ireland, or after they came to Canada? He couldn’t tell; he couldn’t see anything past her reddened hands moving like a harpist’s till the froth foamed over the rim of the pail.

The Cheese stayed in the press not just overnight, as was usual, but for four days. On Monday, the wooden sides of the press were dismantled and the last of the whey trickled away. A workman whistled, and for once Toyler didn’t rebuke him. The drum of cheddar was just over three feet high, by his yardstick, and a full seven feet in diameter. Firm to the touch, but not hard. Its yellowish rind was forming well; close-textured. Like some vast golden wheel.

Beside him, Mr. Harris beamed.

“Of course, one cannot tell what might be amiss at the core,” Toyler said in a low voice. “There could be big eyes or cracks, or hidden pockets of soft matter. As I warned you from the start, sir, quantity is no guarantee of quality.”

“Shall I tell you a secret, young man?” Mr. Harris clapped his arm around his manager’s shoulder as they turned towards the door.

Toyler stiffened at the touch.

“The Cheese doesn’t matter.”

He stared at his boss.

“The idea of it, that’s the thing! This is the age of advertisement, don’t you see? The very existence of such a gargantuan cheddar – that’s what’ll draw in the hordes at the New York State Fair. They won’t be tasting a crumb of it, after all, so they might just as well be gawking at a cardboard model.”

“Sir, the Cheese will be as flavoursome as I can make it.”

“I’m sure it’ll taste like ambrosia,” said Mr. Harris with a snigger, “but even if it’s more like sawdust or skunk, it’s going to cause a sensation.”

After that, Toyler felt shaken all day. He ate no lunch, and had to keep arranging the items on his desk in vertical lines. Later, he supervised the wrapping of the Cheese in 45 yards of cheesecloth.

“What about the bottom, sir?”

He blinked at the workman who’d spoken.

“How do we wrap that? I suppose, if the thing could be winched up an inch, tilted, like –”

“No,” said Toyler sharply, visualizing his creation cracking apart on its platform. “The base will just have to stay bare.”

It was too dangerous to move the Cheese downstairs to the curing cellar, either, so Toyler decided to keep it in its own room, with blocks of ice in straw all around it to cool it through what was looking to be a sweltering summer.

He was coming to dread his dreams. That night the Cheese was the height of a house, dusty and travel-scarred, rolling like thunder along the shore of Lake Ontario, and a tiny wheezing Toyler on top, tripping and scampering like a leprechaun cursed to run on a wheel for ever.

When he read through the letter of invitation from the New York State Fair, he rushed to his employer’s office and went in, for the first time ever, without knocking. “I thought it was next August.”

“What’s the matter with this August?” asked Mr. Harris.

“The Cheese will barely be set!”

“My dear young fellow, by the time it’s aged to your liking, those Yankee farmers will have recovered from their war. We must expand or contract; there’s no standing still.”

Toyler bit down on both lips. “Nine months, that is the bare minimum for strong cheddar, and I prefer 24.”

“It’ll have plenty of time to turn savoury when it’s touring England,” said Mr. Harris.

“England?” Toyler repeated, his jaw juddering.

“It’s a world market I want, Toyler. Think big. Why, they’ve just managed to lay a telegraph cable all the way from Ireland to Newfoundland!”

“Correct ripening conditions –”

“Oh hush, you fussbudget,” said Mr. Harris. “We’re making history.”

But all Toyler knew how to do was make cheese.

He haunted the great cheddar’s room, though there was little he could do except make sure the blocks of ice were replaced often enough. He never let anyone touch the great swathed disc, but sometimes on his own he went up very close. There was hardly any aroma. Some cheeses such as brick were all nose and no taste. But cheddar kept its secrets; there was more to it than you’d ever know until you bit in.

July, and the haying had begun, sweetening the air. Every other day Mr. Harris seemed to breeze into Toyler’s office waving another invitation for the Cheese, as if it was some lovely debutante, pestered by suitors. Toyler’s stomach festered at the thought of its departure. What if it got sweaty, soiled, infested by mites, knocked about? Every day it ripened it would become a little more liable to crumble. Was this what a father felt when his child went out into the uncertain world?

“Cheese has always travelled well,” Mr. Harris told him. “The Roman legions carried it in their rations.”

“Regularity and hygiene,” Toyler began, his voice shaking –

But the factory owner interrupted, with a grin. “I’m sure you’ll protect it from all perils.”

Toyler stared at him.

“Who else could I trust to tend our mammoth baby all the way to England?”

Between his knees, Toyler’s fingers were shaking so badly that he miscounted them – eight, nine, 10, 11 – and had to start again. “That’s quite impossible, sir,” he managed to say. “I don’t … I never go anywhere.”

“A spot of travel’s very broadening, you know; maturing, ripening….”

“I am honoured, sir,” said Toyler, “but you have the wrong man.”

Mr. Harris’s mouth turned down. “Then whom do you propose I should send in your place?”

Toyler ran through the list of senior cheesemen. They all struck him as careless, grubby, slapdash.… He tasted blood on his lip, and went out of the office without another word.

That night he stayed late with the Cheese. The outside could be rancid by now, the inside still mush. If only Toyler could set his mind at rest – but the rind was all it had to shield it, so he must not damage the rind.

What if he took a tiny sample from the very centre of the drum, then patched the hole with candlewax?

With a boiled knife, he leaned over the gigantic disc and loosened the cloth at the centre. He put the point of his blade to the rind; felt like a violator, an assassin.

With vibrating hands, he dug out a pencil-sized core and held it up to the light. Slightly crumbly; a very good sign. Of course it was only two months old, it would have no flavour yet. Toyler sniffed; put it to his tongue. A grin took hold of his face. He chewed. The cheese crammed his throat. Pliable, tangy, with a hint of a sharp aftertaste.

Toyler knelt down, stretched his arms around the draped curve of the Cheese, rested his head as if on a hard pillow.

In his dream that night the Cheese was a colossal disc heaving and falling on the Atlantic waves, and Toyler a giant bestriding it.

The day of departure was a holiday. Bunting, Union Jack rosettes, a small brass band … even the Negroes from the railway firewood depot had been let off work. It took Toyler some time to wriggle his way through the crowd to the base of the platform; he sweated under his wool jacket, and got an elbow in his eye. The factory’s doors were thrown open, and a wagon emerged, its wheels squeaking under the weight of the brightly bannered Cheese. A huge round of applause went up.

Mr. Harris was introducing local furniture salesman Mr. McIntyre, who was going to treat them to an extemporaneous ode.

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

Toyler stood unnoticed near the platform, his face melting like wax. He had his suitcase to pick up from home, plus the pocketbook from Mr. Harris full of incomprehensible tickets and peculiar currencies. Toronto tomorrow, Kingston on Tuesday, then on to Saratoga Springs; he couldn’t remember what came after that.

The poet warbled on.

Wert 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!

Perhaps Toyler would break down after only a day or two on the road, and have to be carted home ignominiously. His little routines were no comfort any more; all his countings and checkings only served to carry him from one terror-stricken minute to the next.

But there was the occasional becalmed moment, between one worry and another. And what Toyler wondered at those times was, who would he be, in those strange cities, bereft of every daily task and familiar object? Already before having gone a mile he knew he was changing; he could feel himself transmogrifying, one cell at a time.

A country is not just its people and places, but its stories. On the occasion of Canada’s sesquicentennial, The Globe and Mail has invited a group of writers – from home and abroad – to celebrate the country’s history in fiction. The results will be published throughout the course of 2017.

Author’s Note: Toyler is a fictional manager of Harris’s factory, but his Mammoth Cheese of Ingersoll is fact. In 1866-67 it toured from Southwestern Ontario to various locations in the United States and England; it was finally sold in Liverpool, but a 300-pound slice was brought home to be eaten by local residents. The poems quoted in The Big Cheese are by James McIntyre (1827-1906), who went on to publish two volumes that have won him acclaim as Canada’s Worst Poet.

Emma Donoghue is the author of novels including The Wonder (a finalist for the 2016 Scotiabank Giller Prize) and Room, for which she was nominated for an Academy Award for best adapted screenplay. Her novel for young readers about a huge Toronto family, The Lotterys Plus One, is out in March.

Emma Donoghue, The Big Cheese © Emma Donoghue 2017

CREDITS: Illustration by JENN KITAGAWA; Design and development by DANIELLE WEBB; Art direction by BEN BARRETT-FORREST