For those not familiar with it, the dish is not made with rabbit. It is made with melted cheese on toast, which is a great combination no matter how you slice it. What you do from there often depends on the ingredients on hand or the tradition your family followed.
The dish actually originated in Wales, and it seems to have been born from economic necessity. As Caroline Russock phrases it on seriouseats.com: “In 18th century England, rabbit was the meat you ate if you were poor, and the Welsh were so poor that they couldn’t afford rabbit, so they ate cheese.”
What exactly they did with their cheese back then remains in doubt. One version that claims to be traditional is found in Jeff Smith’s “The Frugal Gourmet on Our Immigrant Ancestors.” It mixes cheddar, butter, Worcestershire sauce, flour, dry mustard, and beer in a velvety sauce guaranteed to make you make you forget there was no meat.
But flour isn’t the thickener in many other recipes you’ll find. Most, like legendary food writer James Beard, incorporate egg at the last minute.
The hunt for rarebit recipes sent me through my cookbook collection. The oldest recipe I could find was in a reprint of a cookbook from the 1700s called “The Williamsburg Art of Cookery; Or, Accomplish’d Gentlewoman’s Companion: Being a Collection of Upwards of Five Hundred of the Most Ancient & Approv’d Recipes in Virginia Cookery.”
Quite a mouthful, and slightly modernized because the style then was to use an “f” instead of an “s,” so the intended audience was actually the “Accomplifh’d Gentlewoman.”
Still, the recipe for “Welch Rabbit” is as follows: “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.”
In other words, open-faced grilled cheese sandwiches, panini-style.
Right after it on the same page is a recipe for 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, and put it in a tin oven before the fire, and it will be toasted and browned presently. Serve it away hot.”
Both were copied from another cookbook, “Hannah Glaffe’s Art of Cookery,” printed in 1774. (Or was that Glasse?)
By the time of “Mrs. Owens’ Cook Book” in the late 1880s or early 1900s (my copy has lost its title page and copyright), the mustard had disappeared from the recipe, leaving it a mere bread and cheese snack.
By 1909, cayenne pepper had been stirred into the mix. That was the year master chef Auguste Escoffier’s “A Guide to Modern Cookery” appeared and in it was his “original” recipe. (As much as I admire Escoffier and like the addition of cayenne pepper, I doubt it was in many Welsh pantries.)
I have no Prohibition-era cookbooks, but this seems to be the era when milk edged out beer in the sauce.
A host of variations also began to spring up at this time.
Tomato Rarebit, also known as Woodchuck, uses canned tomato soup.
Gebhardt’s of San Antonio, which introduced chili powder to the marketplace, included three Mexican variations in its “Mexican Cookery for American Homes,” released in 1936. The recipes vary from tomato soup to beer, but one includes bacon (never a bad addition); a second features corn and green pepper; and a third features something called Gebhardt’s Deviled Sandwich Spread.
Jeanne Owen wanted to help people face “the difficult period,” as she called war-torn 1942, with a little “good food carefully prepared.” So, she made her rarebit far fancier than the Welsh ever dreamed. In her “Lunching and Dining at Home” Owen offers rarebits made with crab meat and finnan haddie. Must have been hard to do in a time of rations.
“The Home Institute Cookbook” of 1947 offers a series of variations, including Sardine Rabbit, Tuna Fish Rabbit and Welsh Rabbit Sandwiches. After six recipes, the authors offer Cheese Rabbit With Beer, which is, ironically, the one closest to tradition.
Changes kept coming through the years.
The 1953 edition of “Better Homes and Gardens New Cookbook” includes a recipe for Rye-bit made with mushroom soup, ripe olives and green pepper folded into the melted cheese.
In the 1960 collection, “The Best-of-All! Cook Book,” there’s a recipe for Portland Oyster Rabbit mixing cheese, eggs and butter with West Coast oysters.
The 1966 “The New York Times Menu Cookbook” by Craig Claiborne includes a recipe for a Golden Buck in which Welsh Rabbit is crowned with a poached egg, a pair of anchovies and chopped parsley. Caraway Macaroni Rabbit, meanwhile, uses caraway seed in the cheese sauce, which is poured over macaroni.
By the 1970s, the popularity of the dish had begun to fade, though you can still find it in a number of Junior League cookbooks as a reliable standby. And many budget-conscious housekeepers still use it as an economical and easy-to-prepare dinner choice.
No good dish ever disappears completely. In recent years, a growing number of cooks have begun to remake this favorite in new ways.
Food Network star Alton Brown likes to make his with porter, instead of the more commonly used pale ale or lager, as well as heavy cream and Dijon mustard. His cheese sauce is poured over toasted rye.
A website, everything2.com, offers the following suggestions to top the dish: olives, bacon bits, ham or Spam cubes, hamburger, sausage, soy crumbles, choy mein noodles, microgreens, chicken, sunflower or pumpkin seeds, salsa, shrimp, diced apple, slivered almonds, and raisins or other dried fruit.
The richness of rarebit cannot be denied. It even formed the basis of an episode of “Gomer Pyle” in which the goofy marine suffered bad dreams from eating too much of it before bed time.
You’ll have bad dreams, too, if you take the short cut I did, which was to use already shredded cheese. Instead of a creamy sauce, I ended up with a blob of cheese that, while it tasted good, was too thick and rubbery. The reason? Shredded cheese is caked with potato starch or corn starch to keep it from thickening. Cook with it and it thickens beyond what any amount of beer could keep thin.
In the end, we’re left with one burning question: Is it “rarebit” or “rabbit”?
My 1971 edition of “Joy of Cooking” has the best answer I’ve encountered:
“Our correspondence is closed on the subject of rarebit vs. rabbit. We stick to rarebit because rabbit already means something else. But we can only answer the controversy with a story. A stranger mollifying a small crying boy: ‘I wouldn’t cry like that if I were you!’ Small boy: ‘You cry your way and I’ll cry mine.’ ”