the cultural background to ‘Welsh rabbit’

 

Welsh rabbit

photograph: Recipe This

 

 

light supper, of course. I am exceedingly fond of Welsh rabbit. More than a pound at once, however, may not at all times be advisable. Still, there can be no material objection to two. And really between two and three, there is merely a single unit of difference. I ventured, perhaps, upon four. My wife will have it five;—but, clearly, she has confounded two very distinct affairs. The abstract number, five, I am willing to admit; but, concretely, it has reference to bottles of Brown Stout, without which, in the way of condiment, Welsh rabbit is to be eschewed.

from Some Words with a Mummy (1845), by Edgar Allan Poe (1809-49)

 

 

The term Welsh rabbit denotes a savoury dish consisting of melted cheese sometimes mixed with milk, seasonings, etc., on hot buttered toast.

It is first recorded in 1725 in the journal of John Byrom (1692-1763), English poet and creator of a system of shorthand, who seemed very fond of this dish:

(1854 edition)
– Sunday, April 4th: I did not eat of the cold beef, but of Welsh rabbit and stewed cheese […].
– Tuesday, April 6th: I had a scollop shell and Welsh rabbit. […]
– Saturday, May 15th: We had cold veal, a bottle of mountain, I ate rather too heartily of the veal and a Welsh rabbit.

The first element of Welsh rabbit probably originates in the fact that the English used this word disparagingly of inferior things and substitutes; for example, A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (2nd edition – London, 1788), by the English antiquary and lexicographer Francis Grose (1731-91), contains the following:

Welch Comb. The thumb and four fingers.
Welch Fiddle. The itch. See Scotch Fiddle.
[…]
Welch Rabbit. [i.e. a Welch rare bit¹.] Bread and cheese toasted. See Rabbit.—The Welch are said to be so remarkably fond of cheese, that in cases of difficulty their midwives apply a piece of toasted cheese to the janua vitæ², to attract and entice the young Taffy³, who on smelling it makes most vigorous efforts to come forth.
[…]
Rabbit. A Welch rabbit; bread and cheese toasted, i.e. a Welch rare bit.
[…]
Scotch Fiddle. The itch.

¹ In Welsh rarebit, rarebit—a word that exists nowhere else—is a variant of rabbit, probably with the sense of delicacy (i.e. rare bit);
² Latin janua vitæ: the gate to life—cf. the phrase mors janua vitæ, meaning death is the gate to life, with reference to eternal life after death;
³ Taffy: a Welshman—from the supposed Welsh pronunciation of Davy or David (Dafydd in Welsh).

The second element of Welsh rabbit was explained by the Reverend Abram Smythe Palmer (1844-1917) in Folk Etymology: A dictionary of verbal corruptions or words perverted in form or meaning, by false derivation or mistaken analogy (London, 1882):

The phrase [Welsh rabbit] is one of a numerous class of slang expressions—the mock-heroic of the eating-house—in which some common dish or product for which any place or people has a special reputation is called by the name of some more dainty article of food which it is supposed humorously to supersede or equal. Thus a sheep’s head stewed with onions, a dish much affected by the German sugar-bakers in the East End of London, is called a German duck.

Similarly, the word capon, denoting a castrated domestic cock fattened for eating, was humorously applied to various fishes.

For example, in A Description of the Hundred of Berkeley, and of the Inhabitants thereof, in the County of Gloucestershire, completed in 1639, John Smyth (1567-1641) wrote, referring to the River Severn:

(1885 edition)
The Sole wee call our Seaverne Capon; A meate of prime note.

In the above-mentioned dictionary, Francis Grose wrote:

Yarmouth Capon. A red herring: Yarmouth is a famous place for curing herrings.

A casserole dish of liver and potatoes was called a poor man’s goose, sprats were called weavers’ beef, and the potato was called Irish apricot, Irish grape, Irish apple, Irish lemon, Irish plum and Munster plum.

In Britain, the red herring was variously known as Gourock ham, Norfolk capon, North Sea pheasant and Dunbar wether (a wether is a castrated ram). In North America, Cape Cod turkey was a term for the codfish, Albany beef for the sturgeon, Taunton turkey and Digby chicken, or chick, for the herring.

And the bummalo fish, especially when dried and eaten as an accompaniment to curries, is called Bombay duck.

In French, a name for the herring was poulet de carême, literally Lent chicken, and chapon (= English capon) could also designate a crust of bread rubbed with garlic.

It is little wonder therefore that a dish consisting of bread and cheese was named rabbit.

 

In The Art of Cookery, made Plain and Easy, first published in 1747, Hannah Glasse (1708-70) gave the recipe of the Welsh rabbit, but also of the very similar Scotch rabbit and of the more elaborate English rabbit:

(2nd edition – London, 1747)
                                                  To make a Scotch Rabbit.
Toast a Piece of Bread very nicely on both Sides, butter it, cut a Slice of Cheese about as big as the Bread, toast it on both Sides, and lay it on the Bread.

                                                   To make a Welch Rabbit.
Toast the Bread on both Sides, then toast the Cheese on one Side, lay it on the Toast, and with a hot Iron brown the other Side. You may rub it over with Mustard.

                                                 To make an English Rabbit.
Toast a Slice of Bread brown on both Sides, then lay it in a Plate before the Fire, pour a Glass of Red Wine over it, and let it soak the Wine up; then cut some Cheese very thin, and lay it very thick over the Bread; put it in a Tin Oven before the Fire, and it will be toasted and brown presently. Serve it away hot.

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