Welsh rarebit: cheese sauce on toast; all ready for my bedtime snack.
What do you get when you combine a Victorian preoccupation with bad digestion and one illustrator’s imaginative fantasy landscapes? Dreams of the Rarebit Fiend, a comic strip created by Winsor McCay that ran from 1904-1912. McCay would later go on to create the better known strip Little Nemo in Slumberland, but his earlier, more grown-up strip was just as fantastic. In every strip, a cheese-on-toast dish known as “welsh rarebit” was consumed before bedtime, and then faulted for a night of alarming dreams. The illustrated dreamscapes the McCay created would go on to inspire scenes in King Kong, Dumbo, Mary Poppins, and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Read the comic here.
After reading a book of McCay’s work, I wanted to know: would the dreaded rarebit give me bad dreams, too?
In the final panel, the dreamer always awakens and curses the cheese.
In the early 20th century and before, we were preoccupied with bad digestion. Eating the wrong foods at the wrong times was blamed for a range of maladies, including troubled dreams. From The Psychology of Dreams, 1920:
“As is well known, dreams may be influenced by physical discomforts. Many individuals can, almost with certainty, bring on distressing dreams by eating at supper or near bedtime, certain combinations of food, as peas and salmon, Welsh rarebit, ice cream and oysters.”
That shit is well known. The general medical consensus was that those prone to bad digestion were prone to nightmares, and heavy foods like a rarebit made you prone to bad digestion. Case closed.
A silent film inspired by McCay’s comics. I enjoy the first few minute of this film; he is really chowing down on a welsh rarebit. Really shoving it in there.
So what is this wicked rarebit? A welsh rarebit is perfect comfort food, which is why nobody wanted to give the damn things up, despite the advice of their doctors. Invented sometime in the 18th century, it can be as simple as a few slices of melted cheese on toast, the preference being for cheddar or Gloucestershire cheese. By the early 20th century, it was more common to make a sauce of American cheese, milk or cream, egg yolks, butter, mustard, Worcestershire sauce, a dash of red pepper–the recipes varied, and could be more simple or more complicated depending on what you had on hand. You can read a full history of this dish, along with theories about the origin of its name, on the incomparable Food Timeline here.
I made my rarebit with grated cheddar cheese, cream, good mustard, Worcestershire, and cayenne. I melted it slowly on my stove top before pouring it over a slice of whole wheat toast. It was nice and spicy and I immediately wanted another. Then I climbed into bed and got ready for dreamland.
Although I felt sleepy immediately after eating the rarebit, it took me a lot longer to fall asleep than normal. It was a light sleep, shifting in between consciousness and dreaming. I didn’t have any long, lucid dreams. I had watched the Anthony Bourdain Parts Unknown episode about Israel/Palestine before going to bed, so mostly I was dreaming about eating delicious Palestinian food, particularly this one interesting-looking roast watermelon salad. At another point I was at a BBQ pouring hot sauce all over roasted meat. These are the scenarios my brain is pondering constantly, and in my agitated sleep state, I was just dipping in and out of them. If you were wondering what it’s like to peer into my psyche, there you go.
But I don’t think the rarebit was to blame for my dreams. Feeding a rarebit to my husband before bed was one of the greatest mistakes I have ever made. He came home from school late and hungry, so I offered him one; he said he didn’t like it because it tasted “unhealthy.” He spent the night thrashing around in bed, kicking and punching me in his sleep. He actually woke up several times to exclaim “It was the cheese!” Finally, he started crying because he dreamed his undead grandfather shot his brother.
According to the Sleep Disorders Center at the Cleveland Clinic, eating too close to bedtime can lead to “heightened metabolism and temperature,” which in turn “…can lead to more brain activity, prompting more action during rapid eye movement sleep, or REM.” Which means more dreams. It is inadvisable to eat “heavy or spicy foods” two to three hours before bedtime.
However, cheese also contains tryptophan, an amino acid “used by the human body to make serotonin.” It can actually relax us and help us sleep, which may be why it is often served as the last course of meals. Additionally, fat and carbs can make us sleepy, according to Scientific American. So it may be safe to say that everyone reacts differently to a welsh rarebit.
As for Brian’s undead grandpa: unlike Nemo‘s freeing fantasy landscapes, Fiend often dealt with the repressed anxietys of daily adulthood.