Welsh Rabbit in Literary Lights

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“Welsh Rabbit … Autocrat of the Lunch Table … It Scorns All Alliance…”

Foods have been the subject of literary appreciation. Fruits, vegetables, and many prepared dishes have been eulogized, as have many drinks, wine, pre-eminently but it could be beer, cider, other. Even Coke has been spotlit by the literary pen (poet Frank O’Hara’s).

Here, we must exclude narratives for cookery, historical, or advertising purposes, as these have (or mostly) practical application; we are in the realm of the aesthetic, now.

A few years ago, Stacey Harwood of Saveur magazine gave her 13 favourite pieces of food poetry. Sample names: Virgil, Ben Jonson, Elizabeth Bishop, W.H. Auden.

In 2012, Kevin Young issued The Hungry Ear: Poems of Food and Drink which collects appreciations of foods and drinks in bardic form. Many of his names are similarly acclaimed: Yeats, Beaudelaire, Heaney, Wilbur, H.D., Ginsberg, and it goes on. Young provided many contributions himself, in the form of an ode series. Ode to Chicken is one.

Of course food and drink have also received literary appraisal in essay and other non-poetry forms.

The ineluctable fact of food and drink in human life attracts artistic interest; one need only think of still-lifes of table offerings, the equivalent in visual form. Perhaps the difficulty of many artists to provide satisfactory hearth and home inclines them to a keener appreciation of life’s comestibles. But it’s also, or in many cases, simply an example of a hightened sensibility, or different one anyway.

So, one way or another, artists have not ignored such quotidian. Even the general culture knows the signal examples, Charles Lamb’s encomium to roast pig, say. In his book mentioned, Kevin Young was so taken with artistic expression of the edible porcine, he thought it deserved a section of its own albeit space seemed to preclude that.

Yesterday I asked if people know what Welsh Rabbit is, with my thoughts on the venerable dish. Today, consider the following.

In his 1899 Welsh Rabbit at Hildreth’s, American Charles N. Miller delivered a high panegyric on Welsh Rabbit. It’s well written and wryly funny, not a poem but a short essay. Hopefully future collections of arty paeans to food and drink will see fit to include Miller’s work which has been inexplicably overlooked to date, AFAIK.

Few dishes –  ostensibly – seem less apt for such treatment. Welsh Rabbit emerged from the remote vales and stolid crofts of distant Britannia. It moved with Empire to places far afield, appreciated by emigrants (and descendants) whose Anglo-Saxon and Celtic foodways followed. Welsh Rabbit has had resonance in other cultures – the French in particular appreciate le Welsh – but otherwise has stayed within anglophone precincts. To say it has remained low-key would be an understatement, and if anything it has declined in importance, but this has more to do with the vagaries of fashion than anything else.

The dish is primal food, cheese and bread gussied up only a little, rather homely with its irregular edges and puffy, white look. One can see that before the food industry had developed a thousand and one treats needing only a zap in the microwave, Welsh Rabbit had appeal due to simplicity of preparation. And even if made poorly as often it was by many accounts, still it was nutritious and stuck to the ribs, its main office always.

Nonetheless we are due for a revival of Welsh Rabbit, don’t you think? If various pig parts, or Quebec’s poutine, or Buffalo chicken wings, or earthy kale, can rise to world prominence, why not Welsh Rabbit? Particularly as it admits of endless variations, is not expensive, and suits high society (pace Miller), middle, and any other rank you like.

The success of the beer movement must only encourage marquee, nay Bourdanian treatment of Welsh Rabbit. Beer was the primary liquid always added to it and drank with it. Virtually any kind of beer can be used, too. But if need be a cider or wine rabbit will work, indeed Britain knew variations of this type, sometimes under other names: Golden Buck, Scotch Woodcock, English Rabbit, etc.

Call the new culinary star Le Welsh if you want. Things always sound better in culinary French, or bastardized French.

Rabbit of Wales, the happening menus of the world await your hopping in.

Le Welsh est, ou sera sous peu, chic. I see it studded with truffle, with kale, with Berkshire bacon, strewn with gold dust in resorts of the super-rich, or served plain up. It will use cloth-wrapped Somerset cheddar, Ontario cheddar, New York or Irish cheddar, or any of the English hard cheeses. A hyper-authentic variety will employ Welsh cheddar. I’ve mentioned before Costco has usefully spread an excellent brand across its network.

One only hopes the enthusiasm doesn’t go too far, Emmental or Cantal, say, is getting too close to fondue and raclette. Food traditions must develop and change but Le Welsh is too old a dish to confound with cheesy specialties of non-anglophone lands.

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