2.10.2006

There are not cats in Solvay but there are urban legends

My training is that of an anthropologist and my passion is for folklore and popular beliefs, so I always have my ear to the ground for urban legends, old stories and their ilk. Earlier this evening, when I was chatting with Natalie, she brought up the strangest story. To summarize, our conversation went something like this:

Natalie: I was at knitting class and I met a fellow Syracuse ex-pat and we started talking about all the ordinary stuff, you know, driving times to get home and how there are no cats in Solvay...
Jesse: Wait a minute, what about cats in Solvay?
Natalie: Well, yeah, Solvay, this little village next to Syracuse, supposedly has not cats. The story goes that it was populated by all Eastern European immigrants who used to eat cats, so there were none to be found in the village limits. So if you ate at with a family from Solvay, don't eat anything that is supposedly 'rabbit.' Today people say there are still no cats because the Asian immigrants use them in their cooking.

Well, I decided to look into this matter more deeply so I broke out my copy of Encyclopedia of Urban Legends by Jan Harold Brunvand and checked the
Urban Legends Reference Pages. Between these two sources, I'm usually able to find some discussion of any urban legends. For example, for years children in my town have told stories about sexual perversions committed by a prominent local newscaster and a gerbil. Brunvand not only discusses how and where this legend appeared, but also describes how it is widespread across the United States and what social pressures led to its creation.

Yet in this case, both of these sources, and several lesser ones, came up dry. It appears that Solvay and its cats are something of a unique, or at least rare, occurrance in the United States. Having grown up in a town with a high number of Eastern Europeans, Asian-Americans and cats, I can tell you there is no direct linkage.

After searching for "cats" and "solvay," I found only two promising links. The first was for a website run by the
Solvay Class of 1964. They run a list called "You know you've lived in Syracuse too long when..." The very first on the list was: "You know every possible cat-related Solvay joke."

The second link was to an
essay discussing cat eating and a Canadian Broadcasting Corporation documentary. Near the bottom was the following quote:
"While most accusations [of cat eating] are aimed at those originating from Asian countries, other foreigners and their unfamiliar cuisines are also sometimes suspected of using cats and dogs…
There is also a rumour that there are few cats in the town of Solvay (near Syracuse) in the USA because its large Tyrolian immigrant population eat cats; a habit that, according to the rumour, goes back to the First World War when Austrians suffered serious food shortages. It is reputed that the cats are prepared in a variety of ways, including a secret Tyrolean recipe (probably salted and smoked since surplus cats are still sometimes salted, smoked and eaten in parts of rural Switzerland). Children in
the area were told not to eat a meal containing rabbit at an Austrian, Tyrolese or Piedmontese home, because the meat was really cat."

While urban legends are often amusing just on their own (this one is pretty funny), what interests me about them is how they tell stories about our culture. Cat eating stories and jokes usually involve racial stereotyping of Asians, which can be seen in some of the modern retellings. However, perhaps into this story we can see a reaction to the sizeable Italian population in Syracuse. Immigrants have always faced persecution, and not all of it involves burning crosses; sometimes, the truly subtle slurs are those that get laughed at or passed on for generations, even by those who are today of Italian descent. Today, Solvay's Cats have probably lost most of anti-Italian viciousness and hang on in Syracuse and Solvay for other reasons. Natalie mentioned that Solvay is a proud little town that maintains its own identity in the shadow of Syracuse next door. Perhaps the story of Solvay's cats, today helps to create an identity for the people of Solvay, to differentiate themselves from others and define their community as unique. I'm not saying that Solvay's identity is necessarily rooted in its catlessness,* but that the story serves to reflect and reinforce peoples' ideas. Just as the story of the newscaster and the gerbil is a reaction against the "perversion" of homosexuality, the cat story tells something about the people who continue to repeat it, long after its original anti-Italian reasoning faded.

Of course, not all urban legends are homophobic or racist** they all involve stereotyping or demonizing of some sort; they create categories and reinforce identities, some positive and some negative. When children repeat them on the schoolyards, they are teaching themselves the stories that help to define where they, and those around them, belong in our society. Adults do the same around water coolers or at lunch break. This is not always negative, sometimes, like in my interpretation of the modern version of the Solvay story, these identities can be positive forces and the local reinforcement is a buttress against homogenization and annexation.

What urban legends have you heard around Upstate New York? What stories do they tell about your community? Are they an accurate reflection of the attitudes today or are they, like Solvay's cats, holdovers from an earlier era that have been adapted? If you are from Syracuse or Solvay, have you heard of the town without cats? Where did you hear it and from whom? What do you think of my interpretation? I look forward to your comments.

-Posted by Jesse

* I am perhaps the first person ever to write "catlessness" in a serious essay.
** Though, sadly, a good number are.

(I'd like to append to this post with a note that while there seem to be no cats in Solvay, a great many other towns have more than they can handle. I don't mean to sound too much like a public service announcement or Bob Barker, but it takes the effort of more than just a few dedicated citizens and organizations to keep stray and feral cat populations under control. And now, if you live Oswego county, there's an easy way to help out cats and get rid of rodents. This plan seems like a better solution than sending them to Solvay. ~Natalie)

10 comments:

German Germaine said...

Hey, i could've told you all about some cat eating Italians. My grandmother grew up next to some italian immigrants in Wilkes-berre area, who'd hang cat out on the line next door to them during the depression. Same story with turning away a friendly offering of rabbit. This is interesting because I'm pretty sure there is some basis in truth, in italian immigrants and old italians eating cat now and again. My grandma was just a kid so her parents could've of told her their neighbors were some cat eating Italians, they were after all proud germans. But it's strange that she has only good stories to tell about her neighbors, besides for the cat consumption.

Anna Benson said...

wait, are you saying there is an italian or austrian 'race'?

Natalie said...

I don't think that was said anywhere in the article.

Jesse said...

I did say that "not all urban legends are homophobic or racist," though I didn't mean to infer that Italians or Austrians are a "race." However, in the first half of the Twentieth Century, Italians and other southern Europeans were often considered a race, or at least a subrace. The goal was to differentiate them from Aryans; the same went for Slavs, Greeks, Jews, Armenians, Spaniards and I'm sure smaller groups like Finns, Basques, etc.

The powerful anti-Catholic, anti-Southern/Eastern European feelings of especially the 1920s lead to an upsurge in the KKK and hate acts against these people by so-called "Real Americans." Today these groups, like the Irish before them, have been integrated into the "White" race so completely that their former pariah status has been largely forgotten. They remain today largely as "flavors" of Whiteness.

Linda D said...

Obviously, the cat-eating Italians didn't make it as far west as Erie or Niagara Counties. My father's family came from Italy, and they never ate cats, either the "city branch" that stayed in Niagara Falls or the "country branch" that moved out to the "wilds" of North Collins in southern Erie County. In fact, although Italians are one of the very largest ethnic groups in WNY, this story has never circulated west of the Genesee. In fact, not even the Sicilians were ever accused of eating cats (Italians were "racist" even among themselves -- most mainland Italians looked down on the island dwellers who tended to be poorer and darker complexioned!).

Natalie said...

Someone should have clued in Feivel Mouskewitz (though to the best of my knowledge, the streets of Solvay are not paved with cheese)

brian said...

I was born and raised in Solvay, NY. I can tell you all you would want to know about the whole cat eating thing.
the majority of solvay was founded by the people of the northern Itialian , southern Austrian alps, in the Village of Tyrol, My mother was a Tarolli, which is the main family from Tyrol who took the name of their beloved "country" yes I said country, Tyrols are neither Itialian nor Austrial but Tyrolian. If you would like to hear more. my email is briansorbello@yahoo.com

Anonymous said...

I just came across this post while searcing for something else. I grew up on the westend of Syracuse, and I mean THE WESTEND. Two sides of my parents' lot bordered Solvay. As a kid, we were taught that our "Austrian" neigbors always had a barbecue shortly after a neighborhood cat was reported missing.

Anonymous said...

I used to live in Liverpool, N.Y. Liverpool is the village on the other side of Onondaga Lake from Solvay. One night, back in the mid-70's, we (girlfriend at the time and I) were parked on Onondaga Lake Parkway, watching the "submarine races"...a popular "parking" spot. In the heat of passion, the sweet thing asked me to "kiss her where it stinks"...so I took her to Solvay... :)

Lea Petra said...

I know of one cat in Solvay. She is owned by a friend of mine.