She isn’t just some obscure name out of a musty old British cookery book. Rather she is the obscure name out of musty old British cookery books generally. At least those from the Georgian period. Glasse was the most well known cookbook writer of her age, author of (and I’m quoting the full title now) The Art of Cookery, Made Plain and Easy, Which far exceeds any Thing of the Kind ever yet Published.
Quite a lot of books from the time period made similarly fabulous claims of course, so what in particular made Hannah Glasse stand out? To my mind it was because she was at once a skillful writer, down-to-earth cook, patriot, class warrior and proto-feminist. Her book is thus quite a bit more than the sum of its recipes, many of which were, I should inject here, stolen from other sources. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
The mid-eighteenth century was a time of big change in England. The agricultural revolution was in full swing, the industrial revolution was ramping up and trade was booming with the Colonies. So money was flowing and a growing middle class was increasingly demanding a literal taste of the good life. For the wealthiest Brits that meant hiring a trained French chef — usually a man and always a snob, who spoke a complex and confusing culinary language. These effete individuals would occasionally set out to write cookbooks, but the haughty and obscure texts they produced were all but indecipherable to the masses.
Hannah Glasse changed all that by writing in a down-to-earth style that was accessible to the common folk. She wasn’t a chef but a “cook” and a woman, which meant she got paid about a fifth of what the typical house Frenchman received in wages. The simple practicality of her writing, combined with her open contempt for all things French and male, made her a hero to ordinary women of the day — and not just English women. Her book sold briskly in the colonies as well, all in all going through some 17 editions between 1747 and 1803.
Glasse was not without her critics, both then and now. The fact that roughly a third of her recipes were lifted practically word-for-word from other sources has led many to brand her as a simple plagiarist (case-in-point Alan Davidson’s downright hostile entry on her in the Oxford Companion to Food). However she was not quite as simple as all that. Firstly, because rampant thievery was par for the course for writers of all kinds in Georgian England. Secondly, because in contrast to other mere copyists, Glasse actually tested her recipes. She also offered tips and proposed substitutions for hard-to-find ingredients, something that had never been done before in print.
Was she a great culinary innovator? Clearly not. However The Art of Cookery was unquestionably a watershed. It blew the doors off what was up until then the men’s-only club of gourmet cookery. And while she may have been surly, a plagiarist and a shameless self-promoter, she was also one of the all-time great culinary democratizers.