Forgotten Foods TM_HR_RAREBIT_FI_001

My father does not have an illustrious history with cooking. You wouldn’t know that looking at him in the kitchen now – when my grandmother’s health was failing, he studied with her so that he could make her classic desserts, like fluffy cream cake, spiraling jelly rolls, and not-too-sweet apple pies. But before that, I knew my father to have exactly one dish – Welsh rarebit.

In his own words, “It wasn’t much.” He melted Velveeta with a large can of tomatoes, and maybe an egg (Dad: “I don’t remember”). What he does remember is making the dish for his roommate and a friend when they were living in Pittsburgh, and right as they were about to pour the rarebit over crackers, realizing that everything – the table, the plates, and the crackers – was covered with tiny ants.

If it’s not already obvious, I’ll note that this dish was made in the days before my dad met my mom.

Although I find my father’s version of Welsh rarebit unappetizing (I’m not a Velveeta gal, and the ants don’t help), his rendition really is very similar to the classic Welsh rarebit – at its core, the dish is simply cheese on toast. One of the earliest published versions, in Hannah Glasse’s 1774 cookbook The Art of Cookery, Made Plain and Easy, provides these instructions for a Welsh rabbit (more on that name in a moment):

Toast the bread on both fides, then toaft the cheefe on one fide lay it on the toaft, and with a hot iron brown the other fide. You may rub it over with mustard.

This is actually one of the few Welsh rarebit recipes that simply calls for melting the cheese on toast; most versions are actually a cheese sauce, where the cheese has been melted with butter; ale, milk, or cream; and paprika or mustard. Some versions call for eggs; some don’t. Same thing with tomatoes. But all feature that delicious, fatty, and warm cheese served over toasted bread.

While everyone agrees that cheese and toast are at the heart of a good rarebit, one thing that people can’t agree on is the origin of the name. In The Oxford Companion to Food, Alan Davidson points out that in print, “Welsh rabbit” – the version in Glasse’s book – predates “Welsh rarebit” by 60 years. (Although a dictionary from 1836 claimed that the word rabbit “is sometimes a corruption of Rare-bit.”) As for the Welsh part, one theory is that the “Welsh” name is simply derogatory – implying that Welshmen are either too poor to afford rabbit or too stupid to understand that this cheese sauce has no rabbit in it. This explanation would seem to be bolstered by the existence of a similar dish, Scotch woodcock, which contains no actual woodcock, but eggs and anchovies on toast. (A side note – instead of whole anchovies, some Scotch woodcock recipes call for a strong British anchovy paste known as “Gentleman’s Relish,” which has to be the best name for a condiment ever.) Davidson does point out, however, that “One thing which is not in doubt is Welsh fondness for cheese,” and that the name Welsh rarebit could simply be recognition of that fondness.

You know who else loves cheese? Bachelors. (Just look at all the blue-box mac-and-cheese in their cupboards). In fact, my father was only one in a long line of bachelors who prepared Welsh rarebit. The dish might actually be one of the first bachelor foods, thanks to the late-1800’s bachelor’s favorite proto-microwave cooking tool, the chafing dish.

A vintage chafing dish rarebit recipe

You know, the chafing dish – those metal trays-within-trays, heated underneath by a small flame. When I first read that they were the bachelor’s food-prep tool of choice, I was surprised. I had always assumed that chafing dishes were historically the domain of the very wealthy. Granted, this came from very anecdotal evidence: one, that the Granthams’ breakfast is served out of chafing dishes on Downton Abbey, and two, that chafing dishes are used at hotels and business buffet events. (Yes, I know that tonging-out bacon from the Marriott’s silvery warming tray isn’t the highest-class thing, but it did convey a certain sense of wealth to me as a child that remains to this day – I certainly can’t afford to keep an entire tray of bacon warming in my dining area.)

But while we primarily know chafing dishes as glorified food warmers, they were actually used for cooking, not just for serving. It makes sense; at a time when a single person wouldn’t necessarily have an oven in his apartment, the simple, tabletop chafing dish, heated from underneath by an alcohol burner, provided a way for nearly anyone to cook. Indeed, there’s even a men’s cookbook from 1895 that features my new favorite title ever, The Bachelor and the Chafing Dish: With a Dissertation on Chums. The author cites the chafing dish’s “very general use by both men and women, its convenience for a quick supper or for a dainty luncheon, and its success as an economical provider where it is necessary – all this is putting the chafing-dish on a queenly dais.”

And if the chafing dish is the lady, Welsh rarebit is its lord. The Bachelor and the Chafing Dish actually says exactly that, describing, “toasted or cooked cheese” – the base of rarebits – as “the king of the chafing-dish.” 1900′s The Bachelor Book, meanwhile, notes that Welsh rarebit is an excellent after-theater food, and says this about serving the rarebit in perfect bachelor style:

If there is one bachelor there should be one pretty girl, two bachelors, two pretty girls, ad infinitum, to say nothing about the chaperone, who may be pretty or ugly so long as she is shortsighted and harmonizes with your decorations.

But having an excuse to hang out with pretty ladies (“Hey baby, wanna come back to mine for some hot cheese sauce?”) isn’t the only reason why Welsh rarebit was eaten as an evening food. See, Welsh rarebit was traditionally served as what Taco Bell has tried to tactfully call FourthMeal – late-night drunk food. It has all the hallmarks of today’s post-bender eats – cheesy, fatty, with plenty of bread to soak up the booze. (OK, I don’t think that actually works, but it’s what I’ve tried to convince myself was happening every time I’ve had a misguided late-night burger.) What’s interesting about Welsh rarebit’s typical late-evening consumption, though, is that the dish is also supposed to induce absolutely batpoop-crazy dreams.

You might’ve heard the rumor before that eating cheese before bed can cause nightmares. It’s a claim that has never been proven, although a 2005 study from The British Cheese Board stated that different types of cheese tended to give different kinds of dreams – Stilton for bizarre ones, cheddar for dreams about celebrities. Anyway, it’d seem to make sense that if cheese cause bad dreams, and Welsh rarebit is made of cheese, that’s what’s at play.

But the post-rarebit nightmares are a thing of their own. In fact, they were so ubiquitous around the turn of the century that they inspired multiple works of art. One book from the time, Welsh Rarebit Tales – a “gastro-literary experiment” – collected short stories based on dreams from several friends who all ate Welsh rarebit (along with broiled lobster, mince pie, and cucumber salad), immediately before bed. Filmmaker Edwin S Porter made an early short, “Dreams of a Rarebit Fiend,” that features a man serving himself rarebit from a chafing dish (while also imbibing several drinks, which might get a bit closer to the real source of rarebit nightmares…) and then flying on his bed over the city. This film was actually inspired by perhaps the most well-known Welsh rarebit art, a series of cartoons from the Windsor McCay, who is best known for Little Nemo. Also called Dreams of the Rarebit Fiend, the strips each feature a protagonist going through a crazy experience, only to wake up and curse the rarebit he or she ate. In the book collecting the comic, the first page features a man trying to cross a busy street only to have his limbs chopped off one-by-one by passing carriages. Finally, the woman dreaming the dream wakes up – it was about her husband, who’s thankfully safe at home in bed – and she says, “I’ll eat no more rabbits, no.”

(Also, while I have no scientific information as to whether or not rarebit actually causes abnormal dreams, I can tell you that the evening after serving a rarebit recipe to a friend, he spoke in his sleep – something that he claims he doesn’t normally do.)

From Dreams of a Rarebit Fiend

But while Welsh rarebit is known as late-night bachelor nightmare food (a description that I can say, completely unsarcastically, makes me super-excited to eat it), there are also many rarebit variations that (thankfully?) don’t seem to have the same nightmare-inducing qualities and are mighty delicious. Unsurprisingly, many of these first appeared around the time of the chafing dish gaining popularity in the late 1800s. There’s tomato rarebit and chicken rarebit. There are rarebits that call for cream cheese instead of the typical cheddar or American (most recipes agree that the cheese should be “mild,” but I made a batch of brilliant rarebit with sharp cheddar). There are the rarebits with things on top of them – golden buck is a rarebit with egg on top; add bacon to that, and you have Yorkshire rarebit (one of my personal favorites). There’s baked bean rarebit, in which you mixed leftover, mashed-up baked beans into the rarebit (a delicious concoction that my friend aptly called “burrito sauce”). And, while cheese and seafood doesn’t sound appetizing to many, there are a whole host of ocean- and river-dweller rarebits – such as sardine rarebit, halibut rarebit, and even oyster rarebit (around this time, oysters were so plentiful in America that being drunk and eating them cooked on toast wouldn’t make people think twice, whereas today you’d have to practically have the wealth and fame of a Kanye West for that dietary choice to seem sensible).

Over the next century, however, these rarebit recipes fell out of favor. Electricity in buildings became widespread, and chafing dishes disappeared from apartments. Eventually, Welsh rarebit became reduced to the processed-cheese sauce my father would stir up for his roommate.

And that’s a shame. I mean, you (hopefully) don’t need me to tell you that a cheese-and-beer sauce (or cheese-and-cream sauce) served over bread is delicious. But even I was surprised by how much I enjoyed some of these recipes – the salty, pungent sardines under the velvety warm cheese; the better-than-mac-and-cheese comfort of the baked bean rarebit; the why-is-this-not-on-every-brunch-menu decadence of the Yorkshire version. (Seriously. Restaurants, I had one bite of Yorkshire rarebit with its crispy bacon and runny-yolk egg, and I was ready to run into your kitchens and tell you how you’re doing everything wrong with your breakfast sandwiches.)

Moreover, it’s a shame these recipes fell out of favor because sometimes, we all need a little bit of a fast, comforting bachelor food, whether we’re bachelors or not. And even if your rarebit gives you crazy dreams, it’ll also give you a seriously delicious meal.

Welsh Rarebit


Most Welsh rarebit recipes don’t stipulate what kind of cheese to use; in my experience, a mild-to-sharp cheddar is best, depending on your preference. Although the recipe was written to be made in a chafing dish, it can just as easily be made in a pot on the stovetop.

Melt one tablespoon butter, add one-fourth teaspoon each salt and paprika, one-half teaspoon mustard and one-third cup ale or lager beer. Stir constantly, and when well heated add one-half pound mild, soft cheese cut in small pieces. Stir constantly until cheese becomes melted, and mixture is of a creamy consistency. With some cheese it is necessary to use one-half cup ale, and the additional quantity may be added during the preparation of the rarebit if the mixture seems to thick of a consistency.

From Chafing Dish Possibilities by Fannie Farmer, 1898

English Rarebit

This variation calls for soaking the bread entirely in red wine. In testing, I found this to be both too soggy and boozy. I recommend following the instructions as below, but only putting 1-2 teaspoons of wine on each slice of bread, for flavor.

Toast a flice of bread brown on both fides then lay it a plate before the fire pour a glafs of red wine over it let it soak the wine up, then cut fome cheefe very thin, and lay it very thick over the bread, and put it in a tin oven before fire, and it will be toafted and browned prefently. Serve it away hot.

From The Art of Cookery, Made Plain and Easy by Hannah Glasse, 1774

Baked Bean Rarebit

The zephyrettes mentioned at the end of this recipe have been lost to time; Nabisco can confirm that “1898 through 1914 Zephyrettes appears in National Biscuit Company price lists,” but they have no information on ingredients or style. One source I found said that zephyrettes could be substituted with saltines, but it did not mention how similar the crackers are.

Also, if your baked beans are salty, consider reducing the salt in this recipe or omitting it entirely.

Melt two tablespoons butter, add one teaspoon salt, one-eighth teaspoon paprika, one cup cold baked beans mashed, and one-half cup milk or cream. When thoroughly heated, add one-half cup grated cheese. Serve on toast or zephyrettes.

From Chafing Dish Possibilities by Fannie Farmer, 1898

Sardine Rarebit

I loved this, but I also love sardines. If you’re brave enough to step up to the sardine-and-cheese plate, you’re in for a treat.

Melt two tablespoonfuls of butter, add half a pound of fresh cheese, grated or broken into bits, and stir constantly while it melts; then add gradually the beaten yolk of an egg diluted with two-thirds a cup of cream. Stir until smooth and slightly thickened; season with a scant half a teaspoonful of paprika, one fourth a teaspoonful of salt, and a few drops of tabasco sauce. Have ready a box of sardines, drained, broiled carefully and laid on the untoasted side of bread toasted on one side; pour the rarebit over the sardines and serve at once.

From Salads, Sandwiches, and Chafing-Dish Dainties by Janet McKenzie Hill, 1918

Golden Buck and Yorkshire Rarebit


For these, I used the same rarebit recipe from the sardine rarebit above. Everywhere she says “chafing-dish,” just imagine “sauce pot.”

Golden Buck: Prepare a rarebit in one chafing-dish; break some eggs into the blazer of another containing salted water just “off the boil.” When the eggs are poached and the rarebit ready, place an egg above the rarebit on each slice of toast.

Yorkshire Rarebit: Add two slices of broiled or fried bacon to each service of Golden Buck.

From Salads, Sandwiches, and Chafing-Dish Dainties by Janet McKenzie Hill, 1918

Photos by Meg Favreau, For Inspiration Only via Flickr (Creative Commons), and Tristan Kenney via Flickr (Creative Commons).

Comments

  1. Nathalie dupree says:

    Kudos! Brilliant article. Nathalie Dupree

  2. I like to get a saucepan of marinara simmering and drop a few eggs to poach in it. Place over toasted crusty Italian bread and provolone cheese on top.

  3. Jewels says:

    I would like to note that the current potluck/tailgate/party hit snack is ‘buffalo chicken dip’ in a crock pot, which in some recipes combines as many as three cheeses (cream, cheddar, blue) with cooked chicken and a large amount of hot sauce. Save for the hot sauce, it is not far off the track of these vintage chafing dish recipes. My mom’s chafing dish had too many fiddly pieces and a dangerous open flame. Enter the crock pot.

  4. We eat this recipie for Welsh Rarebit in my house pretty regularly:http://www.cabotcheese.coop/recipes/welsh-rarebit
    and when I was little my grandmother used to make a version with american cheese and cambells tomato soup served on Saltines, but we allways called it pink bunny (rarebit..rabbit..bunny, and gosh it WAS pink!)

    Also, I am sure you know this, but in the 18th century and a bit later, the letter “S” often was written like the letter “F”… That might be a bit confusing for some trying to read the recipes. I love these articles! Keep them coming!

  5. As an Ex-pat, I must warn you to beware when trying to recreate these recipes in the US. It’s not just the exotic ingredients like “zephyrettes” that will catch you out. Like “tea”, both “bacon” and “baked beans” are completely unrecognizable concepts between the US and the UK. They are simply not the same thing, and cannot be substituted in a recipe.

    Baked beans are ONLY the quintessential tomato-sauce, haricot bean, and a very small amount of white sugar. 80% of Heinz’ sales of baked beans are in the UK: Brits are very picky indeed about how baked beans taste, and you will never find, as you do in the US, things being sold under the label “baked beans” which are stewed in brown sugar, molasses, bacon, salt pork, sausages, and other impurities. Wikipedia regretfully states “there are currently substantial differences between the Heinz baked beans produced for the UK market [...] and the nearest currently equivalent American product (Heinz Premium Vegetarian Beans)” – specifically, the American beans are mushier and it contains 14g or brown sugar, instead of 7g of white sugar, resulting in an unpleasant texture, and oversweetened molasses taste. While other brands are sold in the UK, they are all judged against Heinz, and tend to be as close to identical as they can, so your best bet if you’re after authenticity is to get imported Heinz beans from the UK, which you can find here in specialty shops catering to ex-pats.

    My vegetarian sister found the idea of “vegetarian baked beans” hilarious, as baked beans are a staple of vegetarian cusine in the UK.

    As for bacon… you made me wince. Other than the small amount of fat, British bacon is never, ever “crispy”, except by accident, at which point you feed it to the dog and start over. It is typically a thicker cut of back bacon, including a large amount of lean muscle, and a small tail of streaky-bit, rather than being entirely streaky belly-bacon, as we get in the US. http://www.endlesssimmer.com/2010/11/09/three-little-pigs/ seems like a good description of the difference between British, American, and Canadian bacon.

    • Oh, and of course, “cheese” is also rather different, but not so unrecognizably. And it’s different in the opposite way to “tea” and “baked bean”. With those, the difference is that in the US, there is a rich diversity of tastes, while the UK has just a single definitive flavour; but with cheese, it’s rather the other way around.

      I’d say it’s a very good call in the article: to reproduce a traditional British recipe that involves cheese, a medium Cheddar or Leicester is probably a very good bet, and for me at least, indistinguishable.

      The US has “American” (OK, that’s not considered “cheese” even by Americans), Cheddar (called Colby when it’s not Cheddarized), Swiss, Muenster, and Monterrey Jack. All very young, mild, soft, non-mouldy and non-crumbly. And that’s basically it, other than imports and “artisanal” cheeses.

      But while it’s very easy to dismiss “artisanal cheeses” like this, in fact, where you can find them — and there are thousands of them! — the artisanal cheeses of the US can be awesome. But Brits beware: because cheese here is usually so mild, there’s a very different palette to be developed: people here typically appreciate far more subtle nuances and flavors between mild cheeses (this one a little nutty, this one smooth, this one earthier…), rather than the rather brasher differences between British cheeses. So you might spend a lot on a fancy artisanal cheese, only to find that to you, it tastes the exact same as processed American.

      This is similar but opposite to Brits typically appreciating the subtle differences between different brands of tea, where Americans might perceive all of them as basically identical “black tea” (other than exotics like Earl Grey), since the American definition of “tea” encompasses a far wider and richer range of tastes.

      [warning: the above is FILLED with generalizations based on my limited exposure: I cannot speak of the whole of the US, not of the whole UK. There are wide differences in both cultures and I speak only of the averages as I know them.]

  6. Another family recipe: Denver sandwiches. Per sandwich:

    Preheat the broiler

    1/2 an English muffin, toasted OR a slice of last night’s garlic sourdough bread
    spread with butter
    A couple of slices of dill pickle
    A very thin slice of ham (if you have it) — it’s still a Denver sammich if you don’t
    (thin spread of mustard if you like)
    A generous slice of sharp cheddar, to cover the bread to the edges

    Broil the sandwich until the cheese melts or is bubbly, your choice

    Eat.

    Even as a ravenous teen, one was usually enough.

    • moonchylde says:

      A lot of us found them through boingboing. ;)

      The whole post of nostalgia foods makes me long for me childhood dinners of creamed tuna on toast.

  7. garry davies says:

    “Gentlemens Relish” See Viz/Rogers Profanisaurus for full and frank slang definition.
    Sorry to lower the tone somewhat.

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