Monday, July 14, 2014

Why Welsh Rarebit?

Yes, it's an American dish...
so American that we can buy it in a box
and not bother melting cheese ourselves.
A little mystery: why did French food writer Edouard de Pomiane classify welsh rarebit as a typical American dish? Specifically in his Radio Cuisine, a book of transcripts of his popular 1920s radio show, welsh rarebit appears in the broadcast titled "A little American Cuisine." Also included: clam chowder and beef cube steak. His welsh rarebit recipe includes beer, cheddar cheese, mustard, and fresh-ground pepper, which are melted, poured over toast, and grilled briefly to brown the top.

Welsh rarebit was the only American recipe given in the book A Table avec Edouard de Pomiane, compiled by Ginette Mathiot from these same radio broadcasts. Many other cuisines were represented in Mathiot's extensive section titled "Recettes √Čtrang√®res" (foreign recipes). The Russian recipes, for example, were Koulibiak, borscht, and four others, all of which Pomiane quite liked and mentioned often. Of six British recipes, two are for curry, one for Christmas pudding. There are Turkish dolmas, pilaf, and two eggplant recipes; several South American countries are also represented by one recipe each.

Pomiane's view of what was typical, as shown in the various transcripts and re-writings of his radio programs, is quite interesting. Earlier, in Pomiane's first book titled Bien Manger pour Bien Vivre (eat well to live well) he has an interesting section on international foodways, but no mention of America or welsh rarebit at all, nor does the much later English-language adaptation Cooking with Pomiane mention this example of American food. Pomiane traveled widely in Europe and in the various provinces of France, always collecting recipes; however, in his broadcast about American food, he said he had never been to America, perhaps a reason why he provided such a small number of recipes.

Welsh rarebit seemed an obscure choice, so I've checked a few sources to see if I can understand why Pomiane considered it typical. I found some clues as to its popularity and iconic status in America of the decades before World War II and also some clues about its recognition in France at that time.

Laura Shapiro's biography of Julia Child supports the idea that welsh rarebit was a typical American supper dish. During Child's girlhood in California in the 20s, according to Shapiro, Child remembered eating "good, plain New England food." Shapiro says: "The family always employed a cook, and only on her night out would Julia's mother step into the kitchen to make baking powder biscuits and Welsh rarebit. ... The truth was, food hadn't been important to her when she was growing up." (Shapiro, Julia Child, p. 1)

Recipes for welsh rarebit appeared in the 1918 Fanny Farmer, in early editions of the Joy of Cooking, and the 1921 Settlement Cookbook. They still appear in many cooking columns, food TV shows, and so on, though I'm not convinced that they are any longer as iconically American as they once were.

Welsh rarebit as an example of American cuisine had appeared in Paris by the end of the 18th century. Specifically, Brillat-Savarin brought the recipe back to France from America after a period of exile during the French Revolution, according to a New York Times article: "His poverty and anguish during his two years in New York and its vicinity did not prevent him from visiting Fraunces and other good taverns and bringing back to France a recipe for welsh rarebit. ("Americans Hear Tribute to Savarin" by May Birkhead, NYT, Sept. 18, 1927).

Another article, "Step by Step Paris Becomes American," published July 8, 1928, in the New York Times also mentioned the dish: "... the Champs Elysees retains one special feature. It is one of the few streets in Paris in which one cannot eat outdoors... One may still drink... One may not eat a meal, but he may eat a sandwich or a Welsh rarebit." The article stresses many emerging similarities between Paris and New York in the late 1920s. Its subtitle was "Strollers Wonder Whether They are in Boulevard or Broadway Surroundings."

I think I have answered my own questions of why welsh rarebit might have seemed typically American to Pomiane, and of whether it was a popular dish in America at the time he wrote. And I've only spent a little time looking for examples -- I imagine there are many more.

As you know if you follow this blog, I'm working on a project about Edouard de Pomiane, and that is why this somewhat peculiar subject occurred to me.

1 comment:

~~louise~~ said...

Excellent post as always, Mae. I think rather ironic that we both approached the subject of Welsh Rabbit from two different perspectives. It just seems so odd that a simple dish of melted cheese should be in the limelight so often, lol...

Thanks for sharing, Mae....

P.S. It's GREAT to be back, thank you so much for your encouragement:)