Laura Ingalls Wilder, St. Peter, and Cheese

Cheese dish, ca 1795 Sheffield plate Given by Mrs. M. D. Chaplin The Victoria and Albert Museum M.628-1936

Note:  No Welshmen were harmed in the creation of this post.

Dear Mideans:

Sorry to have gone off radar for awhile.  For me, as for many of you, it’s the beginning of the new academic year.  I’m feeling slightly frazzled.  I’m teaching one class completely online, another in the classroom, trying to keep my 17 year old son sane during his senior year in high school, and taking a college course myself on the history of food.  This is where Laura Ingalls Wilder comes in to the picture.  As many of you probably already know, Wilder was an American author who wrote a series of books referred to as the “Little House” books based on her childhood as part of a pioneer in the late 19th century.  All too often in the past few weeks I’ve been reminded of a scene in one of the later books where Laura, who is still in school herself, has taken a teaching job and is trying to keep up with her own work even as she teaches a group of students (some of whom aren’t in the least interested in learning).  Luckily for me my students this year all all terrific but I’m having difficulties striking a balance between home, work, and my own homework.

I’ve decided to share some of my homework here with you today and it all starts with a joke from 1542 (no disrespect towards the Welsh intended):

Fynde wryten amonge old jestes how God made St. Peter porter of heven. And that God of his goodness suffred many men to come to the kyngdome with small deservyng. At which tyme, there was in heven a grete company of Welchmen with they rekrakynge and babelynge trobled all the others. Wherefore God says to St. Peter that he was wery of them and he would fayne have them out of heven. To whome St. Peter sayde, “Goode Lorde, I warrent you that shall be shortly done.” Wherefore St. Peter went outside of heven gayts and cryd with a loude voyce, “Cause Babe! Cause Babe,” that is as moche to say, ‘Rosty’d chese!’ Which thynge the Welchmen herying ran out of heven a grete pace…And when St. Peter sawe them all out he sodenly went into Heven and lokkyd the dore! and so aparyd all the Welschmen out!

–Andrew Boorde, 1542 (Dorothy Hartley, Food in England. London: Futura, 1985, p. 492)
The joke goes like this:  God is upset because the Welsh are being rowdy in heaven.  He calls Peter to him and asks him to do something about the problem.  Peter responds by calmly walking outside Heaven’s and yelling toasted cheese.  All the Welshmen run out looking for the cheese.  Peter then walks back into Heaven and shuts the gates.

Thus by the 15th century the Welsh had a reputation as cheese lovers, which led to some comic, probably in the early 18th century, creating a dish called “Welsh Rabbit.” Not “Rarebit” but “Rabbit,” “Rarebit”  comes later possibly to help people who were confused by the fact that Welsh Rabbit had no rabbit in it at all, just toast and and toasted cheese.  The “Rabbit” part of the name has two suggested connotations. Because rabbits or hares were plentiful in British Isles at this time, and thus a common source of protein for the inhabitants, either the Welsh were more fond of cheese than rabbit as a food source, or more likely, that if you had to depend upon a Welshman as a hunter you were more likely to end up with cheese than meat on your bread at the end of the day.

Meanwhile…back in my food history class…we are given the assignment to go to Special Collections at Case Western Reserve University and look at books relating to food history.  I settle down with a book written in 1788 by a London tavern cook named Robert Briggs called The English art of cookery, according to the present practice; being a complete guide to all housekeepers on a plan entirely new. ( London: Robinson, 1788).  Briggs offers three recipes in the cheese section: Welsh Rabbit, Scotch Rabbit, and English Rabbit.

Scotch Rabbit & English Rabbit?  What did it mean, in the late 18th century, to have these nationalities presented as part of the name of a dish?  We understand today what it means to drink German Beer, or to eat Swiss Fondue.  If someone tells us they had Chicken Florentine at a restaurant, we can understand that in two ways.  Either they had chicken prepared in a manner popular in Florence, Italy, or more likely, they had chicken prepared with spinach, a popular ingredient in Florentine cooking.  But the terms “Scotch” and “English” don’t, in the 20th century, conjure up any reliable associations.

If we accept that Welsh Rabbit takes it’s name from a humorous ethnic slur against the Welsh, it is thus reasonable to assume that the Scotch Rabbit and English Rabbit also share this common trait and perhaps we can find some clues in how the dishes are prepared that will allow us to find the answers.[1]

Welsh Rabbit is created by toasting bread on both sides, then a slice of thick cheese is toasted on one side, using a tool called a cheese toaster, this toasted cheese is placed, toasted side down on the bread, and then the whole is toasted again so that the untoasted side of the cheese (now face up on the bread) is browned—often in a cheese dish [Figure 1].  After toasting the dish is finished with pepper, salt, and mustard, and then cut up into fingers (also called soldiers) and served hot.[2]

Scotch Rabbit is a considerably simpler dish to make than Welsh Rabbit.  First the bread is toasted on both sides.  Then the cheese is toasted on one side, placed on the toasted bread, toasted side down, and then the second side of the cheese is toasted.  The dish is done.  No salt, pepper, and mustard are added, and the finished dish is not sliced up into pieces.[3] This is a simple, thrifty dish and throughout the 18th century gradually developed a reputation in England for being thrifty to the point of miserliness.  The length of this assignment precludes going into much depth on this topic but, generally speaking, throughout the 18th century a large number of successful merchants and entrepreneurs, scientists and scholars from Scotland invaded England.  The ubiquity of their presence in London, as well as their Protestant work ethic and resulting prosperity eventually resulted in what is Arthur Herman refers to as the “Myth of Scottish Thrift.” [4] Briggs offers two variations for making English Rabbit but, essentially, both of them involve first toasting the bread and then soaking the toasted bread in wine, while keeping it warm in anticipation of the addition of the toasted cheese—the resulting dish seems to have resembled a warm wine soup with toasted bread and melted, toasted cheese.[5] Although we commonly associate England with beer and ale, wine was made (sporadically according to climate) and imported to the British Isles. That England, and particularly London, was filled with imbibers in the 18th century is apparent in the popularity of two prints, Gin Lane (1751) and Beer Street (1751) by English artist William Hogarth.

Robert Briggs, the author of The English art of cookery, according to the present practice; being a complete guide to all housekeepers on a plan entirely new, was according to the bibliography notes, “an experienced London tavern cook.”  It is easy to imagine him serving dishes that were both tasty to eat and that, in the ordering, would occasion a bit of fun among the clientele of a tavern. Thus if Welsh Rabbit is a commonly accepted dish that includes in the name, a quip about the Welsh fondness for cheese, or lack of hunting ability, perhaps we can understand the simply prepared Scotch Rabbit as a commentary about Scottish thrift, and English Rabbit as a humorous nod to the decadent English drinking culture.

Don’t you just love homework?  I do.  Gotta run now, for some reason or other I’m craving a grilled cheese sandwich.


[1] A popular food blogger identified as “The Old Foodie” suggests that the three recipes for rabbit, Welsh, Scottish, and English that appear in Glass, The Art of Cookery, are provided to avoid any suggestion of an ethnic slur, I don’t think this is the case at all. The Old Foodie, “Welsh Rabbit” (2006).  Retrieved September 8, 2010: http://www.theoldfoodie.com/2006/08/welsh-rabbit.html

[2] Briggs, p. 354.

[3] Briggs, p. 355.

[4] Arthur Herman, (2004). The Tobaccomen of Glasgow and the Myth of Scottish Thrift, Retrieved on September 7, 2010.  http://tiny.cc/dgh3e

[5] Briggs, p. 355-356.

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