William Randolph Hearst’s Welsh Rarebit

The confusingly-named Welsh rarebit or Welsh rabbit contains no rabbit whatsoever and may not have originated in Wales. It usually consists of cheese melted and poured over toast, although there are many variations in the other toppings. The first recorded use of the term “Welsh rabbit” dates back to 1725, but similar toasted cheese dishes were popular as early as the 14th century. Lexicographer John Ayto suggests that the name “Welsh rabbit” came about in Britain in the 17th and 18th centuries, when calling something “Welsh” was a derogatory epithet meaning “inferior” or “of poor quality.” Thus, the name “Welsh rabbit” was a joke – “Welsh rabbit” was inferior because the dish did not actually contain any rabbits.

Alternatively, the dish might have been attributed to the Welsh simply because they had a reputation for loving cheese.

Despite the debates over its name and origins, Welsh rabbit or rarebit remained popular for centuries.  This particular recipe comes from 20th century media mogul William Randolph Hearst, who was passionately fond of Welsh rarebit.  Various family members, friends, and guests of Hearst’s recalled that he frequently served Welsh rarebit as a late-night snack.  Although he employed a large kitchen staff, he took great pride in always making the Welsh rarebit himself.

Welsh rarebit met pop culture in the early 1900s in Winsor McCay’s comic strip Dream of the Rarebit Fiend, which ran in the New York Evening Telegram from 1904 to 1911.  Each strip featured absurd, surrealist (and sometimes graphically violent) situations, which were revealed in the final panel to be only dreams.  The awakened dreamers often claimed that their bizarre dreams were the result of eating Welsh rarebit.

In this episode, for instance, a woman headbutts an oncoming train to save her dog, resulting in a multi-train pile-up.  The woman awakens at the end to find she has been headbutting the wall, and blames the incident on “that rarebit.”

An episode of Dream of a Rarebit Fiend from The Comic Strip Library.

William Randolph Hearst would certainly have been aware of the Dream of the Rarebit Fiend comics, since he hired Winsor McCay away from the New York Evening Telegram in 1911. In his papers, Hearst moved McCay out of comic strips and into editorial cartoons. McCay still did get the chance to return to Dream of the Rarebit Fiend a few more times, though; he animated four short films between 1912 and 1921 based on the original comic strip. In my favorite, The Pet, a man eats Welsh rarebit and dreams that his wife adopts a small, cute animal. The animal grows larger and larger and ends up rampaging through the city.

You can find the entire film here, if you want something to watch while grating the pound of cheese required for this recipe.

William Randolph Heart’s recipe for Welsh Rarebit

(as recorded in The Enchanted Hill Cookbook):

  • 1 tbsp butter
  • 1 lb. grated Cheddar cheese
  • ⅔ cup beer that has been opened and warm
  • 1 tsp dry mustard
  • 1 tsp Worcestershire sauce
  • Dash cayenne pepper
  • ¼ tsp paprika
  • 1 egg
  • Crackers or toast
  1. Melt the butter in a chafing dish or a large double boiler.  
  2. Add the cheese and stir until it begins to melt, then slowly add the beer.
  3. Add the seasonings.
  4. Add an egg and stir until the mixture is combined.
  5. Serve over crackers or toast.

The Cheese:

Welsh rarebit can be made with almost any kind of hard melting cheese. I’m normally a big fan of sharp cheddar, so I originally used that for this recipe. Unfortunately, the sharpness of the cheddar combined with the beer made my first rarebit a little bitter. Not bad…but not perfect, either.

I tried again using a white cheddar instead, which came out much better. It happened to be a Welsh cheddar, too, which seems perfect for making Welsh rarebit.

Hearst’s recipe simply calls for the cheese sauce to be served on the bread as-is. In some versions of Welsh rarebit, however, the bread and cheese are toasted under a broiler before serving. I tried this with my leftovers and it made them extra good. Highly recommended, unless you’re trying to be an original recipe purist.

The Bread:

Again, almost any kind of bread can be used for Welsh rarebit, and Hearst’s recipe doesn’t specify what kind he used. I made my own rye bread from this recipe (which was fantastic), but any bread works, so go with your favorite.

The Beer:

I know absolutely nothing about beer, so I don’t have much to say here. Like all the other components, many different types of beer would work for Welsh rarebit, so the choice is up to the chef. I used an Imperial stout for mine. This tasted great, but it did give the sauce a darker brown color which did not look particularly appetizing.

I also discovered (after making this twice) that when the recipe says to use warm beer and to add it slowly, it really means it. The beer needs to come up to room temperature before you add it in, otherwise your sauce will split and you’ll end up with gross cheese lumps floating in beer-water. This is fixable, but it takes much longer.

The Dreams:

Even after eating this two nights in a row, my dreams were completely normal. I guess I’m not a true “rarebit fiend” yet.

References:

Ayto, John. (2012). Welsh rabbit. In The diner’s dictionary: Word origins of food & drink. (2nd ed.). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Canemaker, J. (2018). Windsor McCay: His life and his art. CRC Press.

Collard, M., and Miller, A. (1985). The Enchanted Hill cookbook. San Luis Obispo, California: Blake Printing & Publishing, Inc.

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