Today in Literary History – March 28, 1708 – Hannah Glasse, the author of Britain’s first bestselling cookbook, is born

Hannah Glasse, the author of the first English mass consumption cookbook, was born on March 28, 1708. Her book The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Simple was published in 1747 and was the largest selling cookbook in Britain for over a century.

It was very influential in colonial and post-colonial America as well. Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and George Washington all had copies in their households.

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Glasse’s book was the first to include recipes for dishes that have become synonymous with British food. The Art of Cookery had the first recipe for chicken (or rabbit) curry and three recipes for pilau, reflecting the tastes of colonial officials returning home from India.

She was the first to use the name Yorkshire Pudding (a recipe had appeared in a 1737 cookbook as “dripping pudding”) and she is credited with making it popular throughout Britain. She also had the first recipes for “Welch Rabbit” (Welsh rarebit) and for ice cream.

Glasse aimed her book not at the gentry on large country estates but at middle class urban wives, one of whose duties was “household economy,” which included setting meal plans for their cooks that were both tasty and within their household budgets.

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In the introduction Glasse tells her readers of the book’s method:

“If I have not written in the high polite style, my intention is to instruct the lower sort, and therefore must treat them in their own way… In many other things in 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.”

Clarissa Dickson Wright, food historian and one half of The Two Fat Ladies team, promoters of traditional English cooking, said of Glasse:

“What she did was to come up with recipes that are so simple and well expressed that women from ordinary middle-class households could give them to their cooks–or read them out loud–and be confident the end result would be a success.”

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The Art of Cookery was novel in that it stressed kitchen hygiene and the importance of washing vegetables before cooking. Glasse also cautioned restraint in boiling vegetables. “Most people spoil garden things by over boiling them. All things green should have a little crispness, for if they are overboil’d they neither have sweetness or beauty.”

Hannah Glasse herself had an extremely difficult life. She was born from an illegitimate union (curiously, her mother and her father’s wife were also named Hannah). She ran away from home at the age of 15 and married a soldier twice her age.

Glasse’s husband died the same year the book was published leaving her with massive debts. She used some of the book’s profits to open a dressmaking shop but went bankrupt and spent at least two periods in debtors prison. She had to sell the copyright to The Art of Cookery to pay her creditors. She died in 1770 at the age of 62, surviving only two of her ten children.

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Glasse’s name didn’t appear on the cover of her book (it is credited to “A Lady”) and many men refused to believe that it was written by a woman at all. Samuel Johnson was one of them, dismissing the notion that Glasse had written it herself by saying, “Women can spin very well; but they cannot make a good book of cookery.” It is thanks to later historians that her name was rescued from obscurity.

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