On the left, Nigella Lawson, she of the lip-smacking, finger-licking cookery programmes; and on the right, an Eighteenth Century kitchen heroine called Hannah who, it has to be said on the evidence of this picture, was never likely to get the male pulse racing….
I have always liked the name Hannah, I suppose because it is a palindrome, so today’s post on Hannah Glasse is an overdue pleasure. Hannah was born in 1708 and was christened on 28th March in that year. She was born in Holborn in London, the illegitimate child of a Northumberland landowner called Isaac Allgood. He had recently married another Hannah – a Hannah Clark, daughter of a London vintner. It appears that Isaac had a soft spot for ladies by the name of Hannah because the person who brought young Hannah into the world was yet another by that name – Hannah Reynolds, a widow woman. The young child was taken by her father to be brought up with his legitimate children, Lancelot and Isaac, in Simonburn near Hexham (Northumberland).
It cannot have been easy for her, especially when her father and step-mother both died while she was in her teens. Perhaps it is not surprising that she fell for the charms of an Irish soldier by the name of John Glasse – they got married on 5 August 1724 when she was just sixteen.
Johnny-boy may have been no great catch financially – they appear both to have got jobs working as servants in the household of the 4th Earl of Donegall at Broomfield, Essex. In 1732 they moved to London, and Hannah appears to have embarked on baby-farming in a big way (eight children in as many years, in the period up to 1743). I am pleased to report that one of the children was named Hannah, so that makes four so far in this post….
So far, so little to distinguish her from the many thousands of women who walked along the same path, and who ended up with nothing to remember them by. But Hannah is remembered – because she wrote a book. Not just any old book, but a book which was to be reprinted over and over again throughout the Eighteenth Century, both in Britain and in the American colonies.
The Art of Cookery made Plain and Easy was first published in 1747 and went on to appear in 20 editions before the century was out. It remained in print until 1843 – and indeed facsimile copies are still available on Amazon. You can even get it as a free e-book via Google here
What made The Art of Cookery so popular was its down to earth simplicity. Sure, she “borrowed” many of the recipes from works which had already appeared in print, (it has been suggested that 342 out of the 972 recipes are straight “lifts”) but let’s face it, some modern TV chefs seem to spend their time re-cycling each other’s recipes. Nothing new there, then…
The book broke the tradition of ape-ing everything French – Hannah generally avoided using French terminology, or French names for recipes. Indeed she went further by making it clear that the French style of cooking was not to be tolerated. This was a very deliberate and refreshing attempt to distance herself from earlier books. In the Preface she says “I have heard of a cook that used six pounds of butter to fry twelve eggs – when everybody knows (that understands cooking) that half a pound is full enough or more than need be used: but then it would not be French, So much is the blind folly of this age that they would rather be imposed on by a French booby than give encouragement to a good English cook!”
So she gives us recipes for those English classics such as Yorkshire pudding and, curiously, curry! But her other quality which set her apart from earlier food writers was that she directed her writing at what she termed ‘the lower sort’ i.e. domestic servants who could read, rather than to Ladies of the Household. She made it easy for them to understand what was required – no fancy jargon, no steps omitted.
Despite the success of the publication the financial rewards eluded Hannah. After her husband died in 1747 she opened a business in Tavistock Street, Covent Garden as a ‘habitmaker’ or dressmaker, jointly with her eldest daughter Margaret. It was not a success and in 1754 she was declared bankrupt and sent to a debtors’ prison. In October that year she was left with no option but to auction her most prized asset, the copyright for The Art of Cookery, and the bankruptcy was discharged. Keeping her head above water without the book royalties proved impossible: on the 22nd June 1757 she was consigned to the Marshalsea debtor’s prison and from there, in July 1757, to Fleet Prison.
Eventually she was released and tried her hand at publishing another couple of books, but commercial success eluded her. She died in 1770. But her legacy was a book which dominated the world of cooking for a hundred years – she was the Mrs Beeton of her day, a Nigella without the cleavage. I like the way she made cookery instructions accessible – her style of writing is lively and clear. And if you are minded to try her recipes I recommend the Celtnet Recipe site here