The origin of Welsh rabbit (rarebit)
Now often known as Welsh rarebit, this dish of toasted cheese was originally known as Welsh rabbit… but why?
There is no evidence that the Welsh actually originated Welsh rabbit, although they have always had a reputation for being passionately fond of it (a fourteenth-century text tells the tale that the Welsh people in heaven were being troublesome, and in order to get rid of them St Peter went outside the Pearly Gates and shouted ‘Caws pobi’ (Welsh for ‘toasted cheese’)—whereupon all the Welsh rushed out and the gates were shut on them).
A more likely derivation of the name is that Welsh in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries was used as a patronizingly humorous epithet for any inferior grade or variety of article, or for a substitute for the real thing (thus a Welsh pearl was one of poor quality, possibly counterfeit, and to use a Welsh comb was to comb one’s hair with one’s fingers). Welsh rabbit may therefore have started life as a dish resorted to when meat was not available. The first record of the word comes in John Byron’s Literary Remains (1725): ‘I did not eat of cold beef, but of Welsh rabbit and stewed cheese.’
Although the term is often used simply for a slice of bread topped with cheese and put under the grill, the fully-fledged Welsh rabbit is a more complicated affair, with several variations: the cheese (classically Cheddar or Double Gloucester, by the way) can be mixed with butter or mustard, beer or wine, and it can be pre-melted and poured over the toast rather than grilled. And then of course there are all the other rabbits that have followed in the wake of the Welsh: buck rabbit is the best known (Welsh rabbit with a poached egg on top), but there are also American rabbit (with whisked egg whites), English rabbit (with red wine), Irish rabbit (with onions, gherkins, vinegar, and herbs), and Yorkshire rabbit (topped with bacon and a poached egg). Then there is Scotch rabbit, a term which in the past has been used virtually synonymously with Welsh rabbit: Hannah Glasse (1747) gives this simple recipe: ‘To make a Scotch Rabbit. Toast a Piece of Bread, butter it, cut a Slice of Cheese, toast it on both sides, and lay it on the Bread’, although later versions seek to distinguish it by the use of stout and the Scottish cheese Dunlop.
Welsh rabbit has of course produced one of the great linguistic causes célèbres of gastronomy with its genteel variant Welsh rarebit. There is little doubt that rabbit is the original form, and that rarebit (first recorded in 1781) is an attempt to folk-etymologize it—that is, to reinterpret the odd and inappropriate-sounding rabbit as something more fitting to the dish. Precisely how this took place is not clear; it has been speculated that rarebit was originally rearbit, that is, something eaten at the end of a meal, but there is no actual evidence for this. However that may be, the spurious rarebit has continued to be preferred up to the present day by those who apparently find honest-to-goodness rabbit slightly vulgar. The French, incidentally, who admire the dish, get round the problem in their usual pragmatic way by calling it simply le Welsh.
‘Many’s the long night I’ve dreamed of cheese—toasted, mostly’: the castaway Ben Gunn in Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island (1883).
This is an excerpt from The Diner’s Dictionary: Word Origins of Food & Drink by John Ayto. Read the original article and find further word origins on Oxford Reference.