Editor’s Note: Brooklyn resident, food writer and Serious Eats vet Hannah Smith-Drelich hops over to ES this week to answer a vexing food mystery — just what the eff is Welsh rarebit?
Welsh rarebit is a great thing. Its name conjures wet gloomy mountains and smokey cabins full of hunched, hairy people. At least, that’s what Wales looks like in my imagination. And Scotland, too. But apparently, Welsh rarebit doesn’t have that nostalgic throw-back effect (remember the good old Celtic days?) on everybody.
“It’s steak, right?” said one of my friends, suddenly concerned that maybe it wasn’t.
“I thought it was rabbit,” said another with barely-concealed disgust. She owned a pet bunny.
Welsh Rarebit is neither steak nor rabbit. In fact, it’s not even Welsh rarebit. The correct term is Welsh rabbit, which makes sense only when you put it into the context of the English making fun of the Welsh, which they did even back when everybody wore furs non-ironically. Welsh rabbit, at its simplest, is cheese on toast. The Welsh were notoriously fond of their cheese, and back in the 1700s they were also notoriously short on meat: hence, their version of rabbit was cheese on toast.
This tricky bit of linguistic mockery was ruined in 1785, when Francis Grose identified ‘rabbit’ with ‘rarebit’ in a document oddly titled A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue. Word historians have had their knickers in a twist ever since (especially the folks at Merriam-Webster), as ‘rarebit’ exists nowhere else as an independent word. Eccentric grammarian W.H. Fowler wrote in his 1926 Dictionary of Modern English Usage: “Welsh Rabbit is amusing and right. Welsh Rarebit is stupid and wrong.”
Any way you slice it, this is not your average grilled cheese. Nor any dolled-up croque monsieur, for that matter. Welsh rarebit is, essentially, a fondue. Except instead of wine, there’s beer; instead of tiny Frenchy forks, there’s a thick hunk of bread foundering under the oozy weight of melted cheese. (Flash back to fur-wearing men hulking by a campfire.) Cheddar is most commonly used in recipes today, along with dried mustard, cream or milk, and Worcestershire sauce. In some British restaurants the dish is accompanied by something called Branston pickle.
“What is that?” I asked my waitress at Tea & Sympathy, a very British restaurant in Manhattan.