Rat cheese cravings, savorings

Published 12:39 am Sunday, March 1, 2009

An unwed-teenage girl was checking out her WIC purchases ahead of me at the grocery store. Her buggy was filled with apples, grapes and other tempting fruits, milk, eggs, butter … and cheese.

I started to salivate at the mere sight of the red-rind cheese – that six dollar wedge of old-fashioned “rat” cheese.

When I was a little girl, we only had one automobile so my aunt and grandmother would come and get us to go visit them in Eufaula. Riding in a hot car in the hot summertime was not a pleasant way to travel. So, by the time we got all the way from Brundidge to Clio, we were a hot, sweaty, quarrelsome bunch.

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Aunt Eleanor would stop at this little country store and treat us to an R.C. Cola, rat cheese, crackers and a dill pickle. We’d sit out under a big oak tree and enjoy a feast fit for a king.

Since then, I’ve been addicted to dill pickles and rat cheese but, in today’s world, it would take a king’s ransom to purchase a wedge of rat cheese. Even though I stand drooling in want, I just can’t justify spending $6 for rat cheese when there are starving people all over the world.

The young WIC woman was not starving.

So, when it was my turn at the checkout, I asked the young cashier, “If I have a baby can I get on the WIC program and get a wedge of rat cheese?”

The cashier responded by disappearing behind the counter in laughter.

“Well, if middle-aged women can have litters of babies, surely I can have just one.”

The cashier got a big laugh at the thought of an ol’gal like me on the WIC program, but I turned thoughtful. Rat cheese conjured memories of rats.

In my childhood, wooden rat traps were as common as the cold. The traps were baited with rat cheese or in today’s vernacular, red-rind or hoop cheese.

Rat cheese was high on the food chain for field mice but wharf rats—or woof rats as young’uns called them – preferred fine dining. Once a woof rat ate an entire angel food cake and a sack of sweet potatoes at one outing at my granddaddy’s house.

Woof rats were bigger than a house cat and two of them could hold you down while another ate the ears off your head. At least, that’s what Pop said. And given what one did to 5 pounds of sweet potatoes, I had little doubt.

And any doubt was removed, when Dora pulled the covers up around her neck on a cold, winter’s night and left her feet sticking out. A woof rat spied her big toe and took a big bite out of it.

So much of my young life was lived in fear of woof rats. But then came the Orkin man with blocks of green rat poison and ran the rats away and the wood rat trap company almost out of business and upgraded rat cheese to red-rind.

In recent years, wharf rats had not occupied much of my mind so I was rather surprised to come face-to-face with the biggest rat I had ever seen.

My friend Sarah and I were down at the old Prestwood Mill and the owner Mr. Allen was demonstrating how the grist mill worked. In was twilight and the hanging bulb gave off only a dim light.

All of a sudden out of nowhere, there it was, this huge woof rat, standing high on its haunches with its tiny, sharp teeth exposed in a menacing grin. Its elephant ears were standing at attention and its long, black tail was in the attack position.

My heart tried to jump out of my chest and the hair stood up on the back on my neck. Sarah screamed and jumped flatfooted onto a grain push cart. The wooden floor slanted toward the grinding stone so the force of the jump set the cart in motion. Sarah went rolling and screaming across the room and stopped with a thud against the far wall.

Her hysteria had evidently scared the woof rat because it had retreated. So, I decided it was best for me to get my feet off the floor. I stepped up on a low bench cluttered with paper sacks for the meal.

Sarah was banked against the wall, whimpering, Mr. Allen had not missed a beat with his presentation and I was trying to look nonchalant about the whole thing.

Then I heard rattling in the paper sacks. And, as if we were one, Sarah and I both leaped from our perches and made a mad dash for the door.

We were in the car with the windows rolled up and the motor running when Mr. Allen appeared.

He tapped on the window and I let it down just enough to hear what he was saying.

“I thought y’all were country girls,” he said, with a hee-haw laugh.

We left him in the dust.

And, those who think that you can get the girl out of the country but you can’t get the country out of the girl, are dead wrong.

Coming face-to-face with a giant woof rat will get the country out of any girl.

Jaine Treadwell is the features editor at The Messenger. She can be reached at jaine.treadwell@troymessenger.com