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The snack that evolved into more famous snacks
How rarebit inspired everything you love to eat
Welcome back to Snack Stack, the newsletter that explores the history, origins, and cultural significance of snacks. It’s Wednesday (yay!) so this snack is free for everyone; paid subscribers get additional snacks on Monday and Friday. Check out the list of past snacks here or travel by map.
Toast topped with melted cheese or a thick cheese sauce.
Great Britain, although the most famous iteration is Welsh rarebit.
You know about convergent evolution, yeah? The evolutionary explanation for the fact that, because life just wants to be in the same form over and over again, things that look an awful lot like crabs have evolved independently many times, as have things that look like rabbits and penguins and succulents and lots of other stuff? (Figure 2. We’re doing figures today because science.)
It’s fair to say that this applies to food, too, what with the endless variations on hand pies and milkshakes and string cheese and salad and doughnuts and a million other delicious edibles.
Cheese melted on bread is a prime example. We know the Ancient Romans had a version, and presumably everywhere you can find bread and cheese in the same place, you can find someone putting the latter onto the former and heating up the whole thing, because it tastes amazing. The gooey, slightly tangy cheese is the perfect complement to the more crunchy texture and mellow, slightly malty/caramely/nutty/bready flavor of the toast. Combined, they’re true comfort food.
In rarebit, we have a curiosity: yet another tasty but not especially remarkable example of the timeless dish, a specimen with an utterly untraceable lineage (though we know there were Welsh, Scottish, and English variations), but also, importantly, a specimen whose various evolutionary descendants are well-documented, the parentage unquestionable.
I’ve never seen this particular adaptive sequence all pieced together before, but I keep noticing these scattered data points in my snack post research, so I decided it was time to connect them. For science.
Let’s start at the top of this small branch of the evolutionary tree.
Rarebit is often known as Welsh rarebit; the name probably comes from “rabbit,” which may have been an insult directed at Welsh people who couldn’t afford meat. Basic recipe: Take a piece of toast. Melt cheese on it or top it with a cheese sauce (often made with a bit of beer and mustard and maybe some butter or eggs). Done.
Obviously, this is a winner. But once the snack made its way to the USA, people started wanting more convenient forms, because that’s the American way.
In the early twentieth century, in Dayton, Ohio, the Green & Green cracker company was doing brisk business with its grahams and ginger snaps—classic snacks. But in 1921, they come up with something new: a square, flaky, cheesy cracker they promoted as “baked rarebit,” with the brand name Cheez-It. (Figure 4) As Brady Kress of Dayton’s Carillon Historical Park explained to Smithsonian earlier this year:
Rarebit is a lesson in frugality. It’s a nutritious dish that doesn’t cost a lot of money. When it’s baked down into a Cheez-It, it becomes a tasty treat. And just like hardtack, if you store it correctly, it will stay for a very long time. You don’t run the risk of it growing weevils.
(You should go read that whole article to get all the historic context, including the weevil thing.)
Cheese and crackers, as a specific pairing, have also been around since, oh, the late Cretaceous, but cheese crackers, with the two components fully combined and inseparable, appear to have originated with Cheez-Its, or at least they were the first ones sold on a large scale. If you examine the timeline of when other cheese crackers made their debut, you can see that all the competitors came later—which, presumably, means those Dayton-born snacks were the inspiration.
Take Goldfish crackers. (Figure 5) They started in Switzerland, in 1958 (you can still buy that version, by the way) and came to the USA in 1962, after Pepperidge Farms founder Margaret Rudkin saw the Swiss version while vacationing in Europe. The four original American fish cracker flavors included Lightly Salted, Cheese, Barbecue, Pizza, and Smoky, but not Cheddar—that variety, the one so beloved today, didn’t arrive until 1966. Again, I point you to the timing: Cheez-Its were already big, especially with kids, so it makes sense that Pepperidge Farms would want to get in on the action, too.
Walter Gerbe and Fritz Stettler were trying to figure out a way to make cheese that lasted longer and did not spoil quickly. Using their native Emmentaler cheese, they shredded, heated, stirred and added sodium citrate (sometimes called sour salt) to the mixture, producing something that’s halfway between cheese and milk and has a much longer shelf life.
This eventually resulted in the development of, among other products, the Kraft Single, in 1950, and all this pondering of cheesy things also led Kraft’s product developers to start thinking about rarebit and how they might help the Brits out by giving them a shortcut—a fully-prepped cheese sauce to put on their toast. The same year, 1950, they launched their solution-in-a-jar. They named it with a catchy off-rhyme: Cheez Whiz. (Figure 6) It entered the American market in 1953.
Here’s one of the very first sightings of this product in the USA. Note the recipe on the bottom row, second from the left:
As you surely recall if you’ve read this newsletter for a few months, Easy Cheese, which started life under the name Snack Mate, was inspired by other simple, spreadable variations on the familiar pressed-curds format. (Figure 8) I won’t recap the whole Easy Cheese story—you can read that post here; it gets into gender politics of midcentury America and a bunch of other things—but for our purposes today, here’s the key info:
Snack Mate was a marvel of processed cheese, evolving from the likes of Kraft Singles (introduced in 1950) and Cheez Whiz (1953). By the time it launched, in 1965, it had been in the works for five years, as one of several products championed by Nabisco CEO Lee S. Bickmore, who took the job in 1961. Nabisco was trying to boost its cracker sales, and Bickmore was enthusiastic about Snack Mate’s potential to provide an assist.
That is to say: Cheese in a spray can is the clear result of spreadable cheese in a jar. Evolution is fascinating, no? And now, just as researchers in the Galapagos are currently watching the emergence of a new species of finch, us snackers can also see similar real-time changes in our world—in this case, proof that nature just wants some things to exist in a certain format. Behold, the latest version of Cheez-Its, which appear to be heading back to their toast-based roots.
Get it here
Honestly, just make it yourself. Here’s Jamie Oliver’s recipe but you can also find SO MANY more, just ask Jeeves or Alta Vista or your search engine of choice.
Notes and stray thoughts
Courtney Love is famous for saying, “If you’re gonna eat cheese, take it out on a picnic, cut it up carefully, and really taste it—with wine or something. Don’t melt it on shit.” This is, of course, terrible advice. Melt it. Enjoy it.
I was trying to find the earliest mention of “cheez,” with that spelling, and while I wasn’t able to pin down anything definitive, that search did lead me to the fascinating fact that Pabst, the beer company, made a cheese spread (excuse me, a “more-than-cheese food,” according to the ads) in the early twentieth century, and it helped them survive Prohibition. (They even talk about it on their website!)
Wanna hear a joke? Here’s one via The Guardian: “According to a 16th-century joke, the Welsh were famous for their love of toasted cheese – St Peter was said to have got rid of a troublesome ‘company of Welchman’ who were troubling the peace of heaven by going outside and shouting caws pobi – ‘that is as moche as to say ‘Rosty'd ches!’ Which thynge the Welchman herying ran out of heven a grete pace.’”
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Also, if you enjoyed this post, have some string cheese: