When a man in Liverpool, N.Y., wrote telling me that the town of Solvay (near Syracuse) has three claims to fame - Allied Chemical, the New York State Fair and no cats - I just couldn't resist asking about No. 3.
I immediately queried readers, "Why are there no cats in Solvay?" Now I know, and it's not a pretty story, though I believe it's merely a legendary one."Cat eaters reside in Solvay," one reader of the Syracuse Post-Standard printed in red across a clipping of my column. Other people were more specific; one person wrote, "The Tyrolians use them as snack food."
How's that again? I thought Tyrolians went around in cute leather shorts yodeling and chortling like Heidi's grandfather, and that they ate things like bratwurst and beer. Or is that the Bavarians I'm thinking of?
Another Syracusian, who says she did research on the allegedly catless Solvavians, explained, "It seems that during World War II the Austrians were starving and had to resort to eating cats for survival. Solvay has a rather large population of Austrian immigrants, and some locals believe that cat eating continues to this day."
Others who wrote attributed the story's genesis to the World War I era when starving Austrian soldiers were supposedly reduced to eating cat meat. "Did they really?" one reader mused. "I don't know, but Solvay got the reputation of being cat-free because of its Austrian residents."
A typewritten postcard expanded on the topic: "Tyrolians have various methods of serving cats - broiled, fried, baked and the all-time favorite, the Tyrolian/European style, which they will not divulge."
Nor would this writer divulge his or her identity, explaining, "I can't give my name, because I live in Solvay. - One Who Knows"
The most detailed explanation came in a letter signed "M.P." from Syracuse. The writer was "born in Solvay and old enough to know all about the subject."
M.P. first heard the story in 1920 when he or she was 10 years old. "We were taught never to eat a meal at an Austrian, Tyrolian or Piedmontese home if they were having polenta (corn mush) and rabbit.
"People claimed the meat was really cat, not rabbit, and boy did that turn us off."
But even M.P. was unsure if cats were actually eaten, and added, "As far as there being no cats in Solvay today, that's a lot of baloney."
My question: Are we really sure what's in that baloney?
Just so nobody will think that the residents of Solvay, N.Y., are unique in telling cat-eater legends about a particular ethnic group, consider some prototypes that I've found:
In Charles Dickens' classic work "The Pickwick Papers" published in 1836-37, Sam Weller tells Mr. Pickwick that he's heard about pies made from kittens being sold on the London streets as ordinary meat pies.
In 1885 an English newspaper reported that a woman was convicted of trapping and butchering cats and selling them to people as rabbit meat.
In 1888 a poem by an Australian writer told about a Chinese cook who made "rabbit pies" out of tender puppies.
For decades Chinese, Indian, Yugoslavian and other ethnic restaurants located in England, Germany, Scandinavia and elsewhere have been the targets of dog- and cat-cooking stories, and these tales have carried over to the United States.
Since the late 1970s, when significant numbers of Southeast Asian refugees began arriving in the United States, stories circulated about Americans' missing pets being served at the tables of Vietnamese, Hmongs, Laotians and others.
In February 1989 the restaurant reviewer of the New Orleans Times-Picayune devoted a column to denying the story that "a certain restaurant was shut down by health inspectors after they found skinned cats in the kitchen freezer."
So, good people of Solvay, you are not alone with your reputation for harboring cat eaters.
Probably few, if any, of these stories are true, but as I've written before, the truth never stands in the way of a good story.
- "Curses! Broiled Again," Jan Harold Brunvand's fourth collection of urban legends, is now available from Norton. Send your questions and urban legends to Prof. Brunvand in care of this newspaper.