Hannah Glasse: How the British writer's seminal recipe book democratised cookery

'The great Cooks have such a high way of expressing themselves, that the poor Girls are at a Loss to know what they mean'

Joe Sommerlad
Wednesday 28 March 2018 10:12
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Hannah Glasse: Who was the cookery writer who taught us how to make Yorkshire puddings ‘plain and easy’?

British cookery writer Hannah Glasse (1708-1770) was born 310 years ago today, an anniversary acknowledged in the latest Google Doodle.

Glasse remains best known for her 1747 recipe collection The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy, which was published anonymously and remained a best-seller for a century.

One of the work's key innovations was the author's pledge to democratise the business of cookery, promising in an introductory note to readers that the language contained within was intended so that domestic servants could understand it.

"My intention is to instruct the lower Sort", she wrote, expressing a preference for "pieces of bacon" over "large Lardoons" so as not to confuse the common reader, a commitment to inclusive, democratic language George Orwell might have approved of.

"The great Cooks have such a high way of expressing themselves, that the poor Girls are at a Loss to know what they mean," she said.

This no-nonsense approach sought to demystify the culinary arts, dispelling the myth that gourmet cookery was the exclusive preserve of temperamental continental chefs and could instead be attempted with confidence within the confines of the ordinary British home, paving the way for the popular cooks that followed.

Everyone from Mrs Beeton and Fanny Craddock to Delia Smith, Jamie Oliver and Mary Berry owe a debt to this modest and unassuming author - Hannah Glasse proving Dr Johnson's doubts that a woman could have written such a work profoundly wrong.

The popularity of her book, which was hit by several accusations of plagiary, was such that its fame reached the New World and survived the abiding anti-British sentiment of the American War of Independence: Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and George Washington were all said to own copies.

Glasse's culinary innovations included the first recorded use of jelly in trifle and the first mentions of "Hamburgh sausages" and piccalilli. It even included one of the first English language recipes for making "currey the Indian way".

While the author was dismissive of the contemporary British reverence for French cuisine, she harboured no prejudice:

"I have indeed given some of my Dishes French Names to distinguish them, because they are known by those names; And where there is great Variety of Dishes, and a large Table to cover, so there must be Variety of Names for them; and it matters not whether they be called by a French, Dutch, or English Name, so they are good, and done with as little Expence as the Dish will allow of."

Glasse was by no means afraid to experiment with exotic ingredients and saw the opportunities global trade represented for the British kitchen, her book anticipating the advent of Nigella Lawson and "fusion cooking", advocating the use of cinnamon, cardamon, cocoa, pistachios, nutmeg, truffles, ambergris, "Naples biscuits" and, er, larks (ideally served with bread sauce).

But she valued economy as much as simplicity, worrying that, "some Things [are] so extravagant, that it would be almost a Shame to make Use of them, when a Dish can be made full as good, or better, without them."

For more on Hannah Glasse and her contribution to the British dining table, you can't do better than read The Independent's own Harry Cockburn, that Wordsworth of food writing, on the "deep puffy hollows and gilded crenellations" of the Yorkshire pudding and her immortal recipe for the "beguiling main course merangue."

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