By Matthew Sweeney
I walked along Rue du Faubourg du Temple on the way to Belleville and I stopped at a shop selling rat poison. To my astonishment and my amusement they had a window full of stuffed rats, including four small rats standing round a table, playing cards. I liked that very much. Paris was full of weird turnarounds, it seemed — poisoning and elevating the rats to art at the same time. I nearly went in and asked how much the four rats and the tiny table would cost, but I remembered I’d be going back to Ireland pretty soon, and the people at airport security might not see the joke.
It was not the first time I’d seen rat poison on sale here. Paris seemed to have a problem with rats. Someone I’d met for lunch recently had said she’d seen them running around the Métro platform when she was coming home once around midnight. I remembered a rat had made a dramatic appearance in one of Baudelaire’s little poems in prose. A rich boy had lost interest in his expensive toy because he’d seen a poor boy poking a rat in an improvised cage. I’m pretty sure that wasn’t an invention on Baudelaire’s part — lots of poor parents probably thought of giving their children (or at least, their sons) rats as pets. Hadn’t I had a pet mouse myself? The rich boy who’d seen the rat certainly was delighted at the idea of having the creature as a pet.
Many years ago a friend of mine who worked as a chef gave me his original copy of Larousse Gastronomique — an edition first published in the 1920s or 30s. In there, I think, was a recipe called Cassoulet de Grand Souris. This was basically rat meat given the coq au vin or boeuf bourguignon treatment, i.e. cooked in red wine with mushrooms and tiny onions. I can’t remember which top Parisian restaurant introduced the dish onto their menu during the Siege of Paris in 1870–71, but apparently it proved very popular. It made sense too, as the Siege lasted for more than four months, and no meat was getting in, while rats were plentiful, then as now. I seem to recall the menus of the time sometimes also included rat salami, and a rat sauce called Sauce Robert. It’s no use looking in a current edition of Larousse as the book has been cleaned up — all mention of rats have been removed.
I had some experience of rats when I was a child in Donegal. I commonly saw water rats swimming in the stream or small river that flowed behind my primary school. The house I grew up in had rats under the floorboards. I used to love spending time under the stairs, and sometimes the rats would come in through a hole in the back. I don’t remember ever having been afraid of them but I never touched them or wanted them to walk on top of me. And I certainly never thought of capturing one and making it my pet. My little pink-eyed albino mouse was rodent enough for me, and even that was a trial for my mother.