“The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy” by Hannah Glasse

Prospect Books has re-issued a smaller facsimile of the first edition of the best known cookery book of the Georgian era, “The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy” by Hannah Glasse, which was first published in 1747. The new edition also includes extra recipes and there are two fascinating essays introducing the work by Jennifer Stead and Priscilla Bain. The latter two are worth the expense of the book alone: if you are interested in 18th century food shopping, cooking, domestic service and dining, then this book is a must-have delight.

In the author’s own words, she set out to accomplish a work “which far exceeds anything of the kind ever yet published.”

You may find it a challenge to read 18th Century English to begin with because the letter “s” is printed as an “f”, and some of the words require you to consult Alan Davidson’s Glossary at the back, which also contains some very beautiful black and white line drawings to illustrate the tools and equipment used in kitchens of that era.

The composition and style of recipe writing will remind you of Elizabeth David’s and Jane Grigson’s work. It is in fact a modern practice to write recipes with a list of ingredients in a line at the top with the methodology following this. The style of writing in “The Art of Cooking” is very much as one might tell a friend to cook a recipe: first take a chicken, and then roast it carefully, add the herbs, salt and pepper and so on…The phrase for which the author is most famous, “first catch your hare”, which may have “done wonders for Hannah Glasse’s mythic reputation” is in fact not found in the book itself.

During the Georgian era the demand for cookery books increased greatly, and it is estimated that over 300 books about food and cookery were published, some in many editions. Most were destined for middle class homes, where the lady of the house needed an instruction manual to give to her servants to ensure the smooth running of the household kitchens and their safe and prudent budgetary management. Of all the cookery writers that emerged during that epoch Hannah Glasse is considered the most influential and how this came about is explained in detail through the Introduction to the book, as well as in two essays, “Quizzing Glasse: Or Hannah scrutinised” by Jennifer Stead and “Recounting the chickens: Hannah further scrutinised” by Priscilla Bain.

Her beginnings in life were less than promising, for Hannah was born illegitimate and unwanted in 1708, albeit within the professional, upper middle-class. She rushed into marriage aged just sixteen, to an Irish soldier named John Glasse and she bore him ten children of whom only five survived. Needing to raise money to feed her family, Hannah set to writing “The Art of Cookery”, which was published anonymously, by “A Lady”. In the preface she writes to the reader:

“I believe I have attempted a Branch of Cookery which Nobody has yet thought worth their while to write upon.”

Her book was aimed at the servant class, and her ambition was to teach simple and straightforward recipes with the very minimum of expenditure and technical complication. Cleanliness in the kitchen and clarity in the instructions were two important goalposts, as was a watchful eye over weights and waste. The book was received very successfully, and from the proceeds Hannah was able to establish a fashionable costumier shop in Tavistock Street, patronised by the Princess of Wales.

When John Glasse died in the same year as the book was published, the family was left in debt, and Hannah was forced to sell her copyright in order to discharge her from bankruptcy. After a spell in debtor’s prison, other books followed, but none were as successful as the first. At the age of 62, in 1770, destitute and with only two children left alive, Hannah Glasse died in penury.

Jennifer Stead pinpoints Hannah’s skill as a writer in that she understood and touched the concerns of the middle-class homeowner and the zeitgeist of the time:

“Her aim is not only to improve the servants, and thereby to save the ladies a great deal of trouble, but also to cut down on extravagance, a sin particularly imputed to the fashionable French cooks, whom she (along with most other cookery book writers of her time) accuses of cheating their English employers by the over-lavish use of expensive ingredients.”

The clarity and simplicity of Hannah’s style must have arrived as a breath of fresh air when so many preceding cookbooks were written for chefs of royal and aristocratic households, where conformity, precedence and high style prevailed. The Georgian middle-classes were individualistic and hungry for learning and this is what “The Art of Cookery” provided them. Didactic guides were speedily snapped up in all the areas of housekeeping we now know as domestic science and home economics, as well as gardening, hygiene, etiquette and travel.

In this day and age we are all very familiar with the avalanche of cookery books published every day around the world, many of whose recipes are plagiarised, repeated, transcribed and copied from other books, magazines, articles, food blogs or newspapers. Like a forensic scientist, sleuth Jennifer Stead has carried out intensive research that shows that 263 out of the 972 recipes in “The Art of Cookery” were plagiarised from the work of other cookery writers.

Stead also finds many mistakes in the recipes, inaccuracies and omissions. Glasse’s skill in tracking down so many exotic and foreign recipes {including one for Indian curry}, the overall scale of her achievement, coupled with her inventiveness, however, secures her place in the canon of seminal, important cookery writers of her time.

“The great number and variety of obviously original recipes and the novelty she brings to many of those she borrowed must indeed have been a large factor in her book’s success.”

Will I be cooking from this book? Well, boiled tongues, dressed pigs’ petty-toes, fried tripe, stewed scallops, boiled cod’s head and potted birds may not be my staple diet, but there are plenty of ideas here which are frequently served at St.John’s Restaurant in Spitalfields and in many inns and pubs up and down the land looking to bring about a renaissance in old, English cookery, led by the seasons and a sense of place, refined for the modern palette and served in a contemporary manner.

In particular I find the cake section fascinating: “To make a rich cake”, “Portugal Cakes”, “A pretty cake”, and the “Syrup of Roses” are earmarked for future baking.

In these recessionary times many modern day cooks may well take heed of Hannah Glasse’s advice. The embodiment of practical, domestic science, she even inspired the most famous home economist of our generation, Delia Smith, in her own work, two hundred and twenty years later .

Further Information

Prospect Books: www.prospectbooks.co.uk

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