Welsh Rabbit in Literary Lights


“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 drinks, wine pre-eminently but also beer, cider, and more. Even Coca-Cola was immortalized by the New York-based poet Frank O’Hara.

This optic excludes cookery manuals, social-historical treatments, and ad campaigns. These have essentially practical purposes, whereas food encomia reach a higher plane, contemplative or more.

A few years ago, Stacey Harwood of Saveur stated her 13 favourite pieces of food poetry. Names ranged from Virgil to Ben Jonson, Elizabeth Bishop, and W.H. Auden.

In 2012, Kevin Young issued The Hungry Ear: Poems of Food and Drink. It collects tributes to food and drink in bardic form. Luminaries such as Yeats, Beaudelaire, Heaney, Wilbur, H.D., and Ginsberg are featured. Young provides contributions himself in the form of his ode series. Ode to Chicken is one.

The ineluctable fact of food and drink in human affairs attracts interest from the visual arts, as well. One need only think of still lifes or the backdrops to many Impressionist and other paintings. Perhaps the difficulty for many artists of providing satisfactory hearth and home inclines them to a keener appreciation of good things to eat and drink? But surely too artistic appraisal of the comestible has its own impetus, its own rewards.

So, one way or another, artists of all types have not ignored the quotidian fact of food. Even the general culture knows the signal examples, Charles Lamb’s ode to roast pig, say. Andy Warhol’s soup cans, Jasper John’s Ballantine Ale tins.

Kevin Young was so taken with the edible porcine, he thought his book should have a special section on that topic, but it seems space limitations scotched the plan.

Yesterday, I asked if people knew what Welsh Rabbit is, and related my thoughts on the venerable dish. I can add more. In his 1899 Welsh Rabbit at Hildreth’s, American Charles N. Miller delivered a high panegyric on the cheesy (not!) subject.  It is wryly funny, not a poem but a short essay. Hopefully a future collection of arty paeans to food and drink will include Miller’s work, inexplicably overlooked to date.

Few dishes seem ostensibly seem less apt for such treatment. Welsh Rabbit emerged from the remote vales and stolid crofts of old Britannia. It moved with Empire to places and climes far removed and the taste was continued especially by those of Anglo-Saxon and Celtic heritage. Welsh Rabbit has resonance in other cultures – the northern French in particular adore le Welsh – but otherwise it has stayed within anglophone precincts.

To say the dish has been low-key for some time would be an understatement. This has more to do with the vagaries of fashion than anything else. For example, poutine from Canada has nothing on a good Welsh Rabbit.

The dish is primal food, cheese and bread gussied up a little, homely-looking with irregular edges and a puffy, whitish-orange look.

Before the food industry developed the toaster oven and microwave, Welsh Rabbit had appeal due to its 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 appeal in the old days.

Yet, if various pig parts, poutine, Buffalo chicken wings, earthy kale, and poke bowls can rise to world prominence, why not Welsh Rabbit? Particularly as it admits of endless variations, is not expensive, and can please peasant and peer.

The success of craft beer should only encourage the revival of Welsh Rabbit. Beer was the primary flavouring always added to the cheese, and is the best drink with the dish.

But in truth a cider or wine rabbit works well too, indeed Britain has (or had) variations of this type such as the Golden Buck, Scotch Woodcock, and English Rabbit.

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

Rabbit of Wales: the happening menus of the world await your bounding entrance. I see you studded with truffle, with kale, with Berkshire bacon, strewn with gold dust on yachts and in other resorts of the super-rich, and served plain Jane. Your base will include cloth-wrapped Somerset cheddar, Ontario cheddar, New York’s or Irish brands, Cantal, and it will go on.

A hyper-authentic variety will employ Welsh cheddar. Costco in Canada distributes an excellent example through its vast network. I see a truly Welsh Rabbit singing with the lush zing of a Tom Jones.

 Fondue and raclette, move over.