Welsh Rabbit in Literary Lights

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

Foods have long been the subject of literary appreciation. Fruits, vegetables, and many prepared dishes have been eulogized, as have many drinks: wine pre-eminently but also beer, cider, and more. Even Coke has been spotlit by the literary pen – poet Frank O’Hara’s.

This optic excludes narratives for cookery instruction, social-historical, and advertising purposes, as these have essentially practical purpose; we are in the realm of the aesthetic, here. Some examples:

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

In 2012, Kevin Young issued The Hungry Ear: Poems of Food and Drink. It collects encomia on food and drink in bardic form. Many names are equally well-known, for example Yeats, Beaudelaire, Heaney, Wilbur, H.D., Ginsberg. Young provides many contributions himself, in the form of an ode series. Ode to Chicken is one.

Of course, food and drink have also received aesthetic appraisal in essay and other non-poetry form.

The ineluctable fact of food and drink in human life attracts interest of the visual arts, as well. One need only think of still-lifes of table offerings that range from soup to nuts. Perhaps the difficulty of many artists to provide satisfactory hearth and home inclines them to a keener appreciation of life’s eatables. But also, or in many cases, it’s an example of a heightened sensibility, or a different one anyway.

So, one way or another, artists of all types have not ignored the quotidian of food. Even the general culture knows the signal examples, Charles Lamb’s ode to roast pig, say. In his book, Kevin Young was so taken with artistic expression of the edible porcine, he thought the book should contain a section just on that topic, although space limitations seemed to preclude this.

Yesterday, I asked if people know what Welsh Rabbit is, and gave my thoughts on the venerable dish. I can add more, as follows. In his 1899 Welsh Rabbit at Hildreth’s, the American Charles N. Miller delivered a high panegyric on his cheesy subject.  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 seems inexplicably overlooked to date.

Few dishes, or 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 and climes far removed and was appreciated especially by emigrants (and their descendants) with Anglo-Saxon and Celtic blood. Welsh Rabbit has 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 has declined in culinary importance. This has more to do with the vagaries of food fashion than anything else.

The dish is primal food: cheese and bread gussied up only a little, and homely (the word is telling) with its irregular edges and puffy, white look. One can see that before the food industry 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, not the least of its merits in the old days.

Yet, if various pig parts, Quebec’s poutine, Buffalo chicken wings, and earthy kale can rise to world foodie prominence, why not Welsh Rabbit? Particularly as it admits of endless variations, is not expensive, and suits high society (pace Miller) or any other rank you like.

The success of the craft 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 works well, indeed Britain knew variations of these types, sometimes under names such as Golden Buck, Scotch Woodcock, English Rabbit.

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 Jane. The cheese used will include cloth-wrapped Somerset cheddar, Ontario’s cheddar, New York or the Irish brands, and other of the English hard cheeses.

A hyper-authentic variety will employ Welsh cheddar. I’ve mentioned before that Costco distributes an excellent brand through its vast network.

One only hopes the enthusiasm doesn’t go too far, Emmental or Cantal, should be restricted to fondue and raclette. Food traditions must develop and change but Le Welsh is too old a dish to confound with cheesy specialties of the Swiss cantons. Mais voyons donc.

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