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The Black Rider

Every time I open a can of шпротный паштет fish paste, I get to missing my cat. шпротный паштет ('shprotnyi pashtet', Russian for 'sardine pâté') is a gray slurry with the texture and appearance, but not the odor, of freshly mixed concrete. It is made of industrially mashed and homogenized sardines from the former Eastern bloc. As best I can determine, it comes from Latvia and is sold in an attractive, ageless yellow metal can with a faded black label. There is no expiration date.

шпротный паштет may look like wet concrete, but it tastes like seafood heaven. It is particularly good spread on a toasted bagel and served with thick tomato slices on top, but if you are a cat, you are likely to prefer it straight from the can. If you are a cat, you can also probably detect a can of the stuff being opened in the kitchen two stories below despite being sound asleep on your back in an armchair, four paws in the air, dead to the world. Because not only does шпротный паштет come in a thick-walled can that makes a loud 'thunk - fsssss!' when pierced, but it also has what one might call a distinctive odor.

Which is a bit like saying that capsaicin has a distinctive flavor. You love it, or you don't.

To the uncultured palate, there is nothing that шпротный паштет calls to mind as much as really, really cheap cat food; and the cat's behavior on detecting the presence of a can only reinforces the impression. The substance is like crack cocaine for felis catus.

Very early in our cohabitation, my ex issued a fatwa against шпротный паштет and forced the cat and me to go underground to safeguard a supply. My own mother became a dealer, making once-a-season supply runs to some back room Russian deli in Boston to load up on the tasty disks. She and I would rendezvous in New Hampshire, and I would trade a mortgage check in return for a tall stack of cans, along with some other Slavic unobtainables, which I hid under a false floor in the trunk.

The cat's job was to destroy all evidence of шпротный паштет at home, and her performance was outstanding. On the (mercifully frequent) mornings when I was up and ready for work while the ex was still asleep, I would open a can and prepare myself a royal breakfast, working quickly by an opened window. The cat would hurl herself down the stairs like a load of bricks falling down a chute, and then sit on her tall stool and bore holes into me with her eyes until I relinquished the can. This she would lick clean, stripping the metal lining out of the bottom with her raspy pink tongue, purring like a chainsaw.

One nice thing about being single is that it has lifted so many food restrictions for me - no need to negotiate for rights to the avocado, no consequences if I finish the salsa, nothing standing between me and шпротный паштет, 24/7, whenever I want it. But a not-so-nice thing about being single is that I have had to relinquish the cat. And without my partner in crime, the fish paste has lost all its savor. She is somewhere in Maine now, being well cared for by a near stranger, while I wait to find a steady place to live and can bring her back. And I have a whole stack of yellow cans saved up for that happy day.

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