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Our family just finished our traditional post-Easter dinner of colorful Woodchucks, and once again I am wondering about the origin of this odd recipe name. Some searching on the internet has turned up various recipes similar to my family's. There are variations, but all feature the basics of hard boiled eggs sliced into a cheese (or occasionally white cream) sauce and a distinct lack of actual woodchuck1. (Common variations include the addition of various herbs, vegetables, and/or tomato soup, and serving over various forms of noodles or bread.) You can see one such recipe here and another here.

The first clue I found for the name's origin is in Yankee Magazine's New England Today. A 2007 article posits two hypotheses for the origin of the recipe—a reader who contributed the recipe in 1966 claimed that 18th century shipwreck survivors marooned on an island with a lot of cheese invented the dish, or perhaps instead it is a 1930s variation on Welsh rarebit2—but doesn't offer an explanation of the name. The second theory may perhaps hold a clue, since both "Welsh rarebit" and "woodchucks" are cheese-based dishes notable for the absence of the small furry animal implied in their names.

In fact, the famous cookery book Joy of Cooking (originally published in 1931; the version I was able to find online is from 1975) includes a recipe for Tomato Rarebit or woodchuck, directly connecting rarebit and woodchuck.

Another hint I've found about the origins of the name comes from a video demonstrating how to make "Chinese Woodchucks". One of the makers of the video says (starting around 30 seconds) that his mother found the recipe in a newspaper in the 1960s or 1970s, and that it came from former mayor of Chicago Richard Daly. The time frame is similar to the Yankee Magazine recipe contribution, and a Chicago connection would make sense geographically for my own family's acquisition of the recipe. Several of the recipes that I found online recommended serving it over lo mein or "Chinese" noodles.

If the recipe is in fact a variation on Welsh rarebit, the name Chinese woodchuck could be a sort of snowclone of the form [deprecated? nationality] [deprecated? food animal]. The OED lists Scottish rabbit3 as a dish related to Welsh rabbit/rarebit, and one of its attestations mentions "English" and "Irish" versions of the dish as well, so there is some precedent for such a variation. However, the Mayor Daly story doesn't seem to be common to many of the sources I've found, and there are many "woodchuck" recipes that seem to predate the Chinese version.

Of course the name may still be a variation or evolution along these lines, even if it wasn't originally this form exactly. For example, perhaps it was meant to be an American version of Welsh rarebit, on the theory that the woodchuck is a uniquely North American rodent.4 This could make sense if it is a term/dish that originated in or is somehow primarily associated with North America.

More discussion of the recipe here, including an attestation for a version of the recipe in the 1962 edition of Joy of Cooking.

So, my questions:

  1. Can anyone provide a more definitive answer about the etymology of the name woodchuck(s) or some variation thereof for a hard-boiled-eggs-in-sauce dish?

  2. What is the approximate geographic location of the use of this term for dishes like this? (I suspect it's a primarily North American usage, but am interested in whether it extends further or, conversely, is limited to only part of the US and/or Canada.)

Just to be clear, I'm not asking about the origins of the recipe or the main meaning of the word woodchuck, just how the term woodchuck came to be used for this kind of dish. I'm most interested in when, where, and especially how the term arose.


1 Woodchuck is another name for the groundhog of Groundhog Day fame, a North American type of marmot. See Wikipedia.

2 The OED says of Welsh rarebit:

Etymology: Alteration of Welsh rabbit n., apparently after rare adj.1 and bit n.1, probably with the sense ‘delicacy’.
There is no evidence of the independent use of a simplex rarebit , except later as a shortening of this compound (see rarebit n.). ("Welsh rarebit, n." OED Online. Oxford University Press, March 2017.)

On Welsh rabbit's etymology it has only

< Welsh adj. + rabbit n.1, probably humorously. Compare slightly later Scotch rabbit n. at Scotch adj. and n.3 Special uses 2. ("Welsh rabbit, n." OED Online. Oxford University Press, March 2017.)

Unfortunately, the OED has no information about the recipe version of woodchuck.

3 "Scotch, adj. and n.3." OED Online. Oxford University Press, March 2017. Special uses 2.

4 I am aware that rabbits aren't actually rodents; however, if this label does date from the early twentieth century, it is likely that whoever chose it would not have made that distinction. Per Oxford Dictionaries,

Until the early 20th century, zoologists classified the rabbit and other lagomorphs (as members of the order Lagomorpha are known) within the order Rodentia (rodents), which includes rats, mice, squirrels, and marmots.

  • Well, there is perhaps this unfortunate recipe for woodchuck patties in tomato sauce. wildliferecipes.net/game_recipes/Small_game_recipes/… – Xanne Apr 20 '17 at 6:14
  • A 1964 edition of The Joy of Cooking (paperback) has Welsh rarebit recipes (2) and "tomato rarebit or woodchuck" (also 2 recipes). None of these recipes has hard-boiled eggs.That doesn't get any closer to an answer. – Xanne Apr 20 '17 at 7:58
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    @Josh I don't think those are actually related. If this set of dishes was named in honor of the holiday, I'd expect them to be called groundhogs. While the woodchuck is the same animal as the groundhog, I doubt most Americans know that (many don't realize that the woodchuck is an actual animal; we only know it from the tongue twister) and the holiday is never called Woodchuck Day. There are recipes that call for actual woodchuck/groundhog, like those in your link, but they don't look related to this set of recipes—no hard-boiled eggs or cheese sauce. – 1006a Apr 20 '17 at 9:03
  • @Josh Yes, that's the article described and linked in my second paragraph. – 1006a Apr 20 '17 at 9:04
  • @Josh I know that some Americans are fuzzy about exactly what real-world animal it is, including in areas where the recipe exists. Obviously the people cooking the actual critters know what it is. But I'm quite sure that the recipes I'm asking about are unrelated to both recipes containing actual woodchucks (stew ≠ cheese sauce) and Groundhog Day (it's not called groundhog and it's not eaten on February 2; those who mention a holiday association mostly mention Christmas, and I associate it with Easter). If you have evidence to the contrary, please write up an answer. – 1006a Apr 20 '17 at 10:23
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It appears that the name of the American creamy cheese and egg sauce, known as woodchuck, was inspired by the evergreen Welsh rarebit, a ‘gourmet’ dish which famously contains no trace of rabbit. Just as Welsh rarebit contains no meat, neither does woodchuck whose recipe harks back as far as 1915. It therefore seems plausible that American cooks, in a similar spirit of irony, ennobled their variation with the name of a giant North American squirrel. The American rarebit dish already existed, (1913 recipe) so there was little point in using the same animal's name.

The origin of Welsh rarebit

[…] A more likely derivation of the name is that Welsh in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries was used as a patronizingly humorous epithet for any inferior grade or variety of article, or for a substitute for the real thing (thus a Welsh pearl was one of poor quality, possibly counterfeit, and to use a Welsh comb was to comb one’s hair with one’s fingers).

Welsh rabbit may therefore have started life as a dish resorted to when meat was not available.

The first record of the word comes in John Byron’s Literary Remains (1725): ‘I did not eat of cold beef, but of Welsh rabbit and stewed cheese.’

Welsh rabbit has of course produced one of the great linguistic causes célèbres of gastronomy with its genteel variant Welsh rarebit. There is little doubt that rabbit is the original form, and that rarebit (first recorded in 1781) is an attempt to folk-etymologize it—that is, to reinterpret the odd and inappropriate-sounding rabbit as something more fitting to the dish.

Regional dishes

Although the term is often used simply for a slice of bread topped with cheese and put under the grill, the fully-fledged Welsh rabbit is a more complicated affair, with several variations: the cheese (classically Cheddar or Double Gloucester, by the way) can be mixed with butter or mustard, beer or wine, and it can be pre-melted and poured over the toast rather than grilled. And then of course there are all the other rabbits that have followed in the wake of the Welsh: buck rabbit is the best known (Welsh rabbit with a poached egg on top), but there are also American rabbit (with whisked egg whites), English rabbit (with red wine), Irish rabbit (with onions, gherkins, vinegar, and herbs), and Yorkshire rabbit (topped with bacon and a poached egg).

Sauce: Oxford Dictionaries

From rarebit to woodchuck

Perhaps emigrants from the British isles saw a physical similarity between the North American Marmot, the woodchuck, and its European counterpart, the humble rabbit. Indeed once decapitated, a skinned woodchuck and rabbit look remarkably alike. At first glance, I wouldn't be able to tell the difference between the two, and I have cooked a few rabbit dishes in my day. Furthermore, their taste is said to be also similar.

skinned woodchuck on white plate

The meat tastes more like squirrel or rabbit than anything else – they are all rodents, after all.

skinned rabbit on chopping board

Which is which? The first image shows a skinned woodchuck.

To whet our appetites…

These following links confirm that woodchuck meat is comestible, in fact one can find several North American recipes online; here, here and here.

I think this probably explains where the rarebit connection is derived.

Tomatoes, Cheese and Eggs

The earliest example of the woodchuck recipe in print is dated February 03, 1915 from a newspaper called Rock Island Argus, in Illinois.

enter image description here

The ingredients are: One can tomatoes, one-half pound cheese ... two eggs beaten light. [...] salt and pepper; serve on crackers. It's interesting to note that the author used quote marks around “Woodchuck”, which suggests that the name of the dish was in its infancy.

From The Canadian Magazine, dated 1936

Even very simple food takes on a party air when it bubbles in a copper dish, so you need not fear serving such old favourites as Woodchuck and English Monkey and Sardine Rarebit, those favourites of college days.

Woodchuck
1 can of tomatoes, ½ lb. Canadian cheese cut in small pieces, 2 eggs (beaten until light) , salt, pepper and dash of paprika. Put tomatoes through a rather coarse sieve, add cheese and cook, stirring constantly until cheese is melted. Add eggs slowly and stir until the mixture bubbles. Season to taste and serve on crackers.

The recipe from Joy of Cooking (link provided by the OP), 1962, has the following ingredients:

1 cup condensed tomato soup
½ cup water
¾ cup thinly sliced Sautéed Onions
¾ Lb. or more shredded aged yellow cheese
2 egg yolks
1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
1 teaspoon dry mustard
1 teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon paprika
1/8 teaspoon white pepper
2 egg whites
hot toast or crackers

The following is a modern variation of Buck rarebit. Note, the addition of poached eggs.

4 large, very fresh eggs for poaching 10g butter
10g plain flour
6 tbsp semi-skimmed milk
½ tsp English mustard
a dash of Worcestershire sauce
a pinch of cayenne pepper
2 large eggs, separated
25g strong Cheddar cheese, grated
25g Parmesan cheese, grated
4 slices white bread (medium thick)
seasoning

enter image description here
Image and recipe via the British paper, the Telegraph

  • interesting, but I am not sure this is what OP is looking for. I think the egg and cheese recipe (which looks terribly German to me) is just a variant out of all the ancient recipes the were prepared with woodchucks. – user66974 Apr 20 '17 at 14:17
  • @Josh I don't follow your criticism. The melted cheese and tomato sauce on noodles, is a variation of Welsh rarebit, which has no trace of meat whatsoever. The recipes are very similar, my answer puts forward that N.American cooks used the term woodchuck ironically, just as the Welsh (or the English) called their traditional dinner snack Welsh rarebit. – Mari-Lou A Apr 21 '17 at 10:51
  • You assumption looks reasonable, but OP main concern is the use of the term woodchuck given that "I doubt most Americans know that (many don't realize that the woodchuck is an actual animal; we only know it from the tongue twister)". So why was the term woodchuck used? – user66974 Apr 21 '17 at 11:49
  • @Josh the question is asking why the dish is called woodchuck (and not say, American cheesy tomato sauce). And he is asking about its geographical origins. All references to woodchuck/groundhog are American and Canadian, and this is because the animal lives in N. America. – Mari-Lou A Apr 21 '17 at 18:29
  • Yes, but why woodchuck and not groundhog or marmot given that, according to what OP says (a native speaker) few American do realise what a woodchuck is, and ignore that it may be an animal? IMO this has to do with the fact that the term woodchuck is older than groundhog, and it stuck to recipes names in earlier times. – user66974 Apr 21 '17 at 18:41
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Considering that the woodchuck involves hard-boiled eggs, and Welsh Rabbit does not, then a better match for the dish is the "Scotch Woodcock."

The St. James's Cookery Book, By Louisa Rochfort, 1894

Scotch Woodcock which is nice either for breakfast luncheon or petit souper It consists of hard boiled eggs chopped up mixed with a few teaspoonfuls of good anchovy sauce and then laid on slices of hot buttered toast.

So, "woodchuck" is possibly an eggcorn (a cornish egg?) for woodcock. Perhaps it is intentional: the few people who mention woodchucks rarely mention sardines.

  • This is a good find. I think any early instances of "Scotch woodchuck" or maybe something like "American woodcock" might be the smoking gun. – 1006a Apr 22 '17 at 14:57
  • @1006a The American woodcock is a bird, I doubt the names of two separate species could be confused. – Mari-Lou A Apr 23 '17 at 15:46
  • @Mari-LouA: it is a play on words, not a matter of mistaken identity. Especially since, as we have established, there is no Woodcock nor Woodchuck nor Rabbit in any of these recipes, and there never was. – Yorik Apr 25 '17 at 14:36
  • Yes, it's a play on words. I know, but it seems unlikely that the Americans would mistake the word woodcock in the Scottish recipe/variation for that of woodchuck, as you also suggested. It seems to me more likely that it was a deliberate choice, a woodchuck is a N.American creature, it represents the US better than a rabbit, or a woodcock would. – Mari-Lou A Apr 25 '17 at 15:05

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