Meet Hannah Glasse: Basically, the Martha Stewart, Julia Child and Instant Pot Inventor of Her Time
Nearly 300 years ago, Hannah Glasse invented the modern cookbook–and the modern dinner party. Here’s her story.
PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images
Who was Hannah Glasse? Hannah Glasse was a groundbreaking 18th century author, known primarily for writing an English cookbook with an almost 21st Century title: The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy: Which Far Exceeds Anything of the Kind Yet Published.
Her story celebrates the memory of a woman who was basically the Julia Child meets Martha Stewart of her time. Actually, given the popularity, we should throw in Robert Wang (creator of the Instant Pot).
Unfortunately, her story also ends in squalor and sadness, as she lost whatever wealth she accumulated after her innovative 1747 cookbook, which was published in 17 editions and was wildly popular in both Great Britain and the British colonies in America. Much of her fortune went to pay her late husband's debts, and she was actually locked up for a time in a notorious debtor's prison.
Glasse was born March 28, 1708, so today would have been her 310th birthday, which is why she's being celebrated with a Google Doodle. She was the illegitimate child of a woman also named Hannah and a man named Isaac--who was inconveniently married to yet another woman, also named Hannah.
Isaac and the three Hannahs--mother, daughter, and stepmother--all moved in together along with Isaac's two other sons. After a childhood she described as "wicked," young Hannah ran away at age 15 to marry an Irish soldier "who seems to have been considerably older than her," according to a 2011 book, A History of English Food, by Clarissa Dickson Wright.
She had 10 children, of whom only five survived, and began writing the cookbook for which she would become known. Or more correctly: the cookbook for which she would not become known, at least for a very long time.
For reasons now lost to history, Glasse published pseudonymously, with the author credited simply as "A Lady." The book "did make her quite a lot of money," according to Wright, but Glasse's Irish soldier husband died just after it was published, "leaving behind quite a lot of debt."
Glasse was forced into bankruptcy, auctioned off everything she owned, including her copyright in The Art of Cookery, spent time in debtor's prison (real Dickensian stuff) and died in 1770, outliving all but two of her children.
A debate over who had written her popular book persisted, and wasn't truly settled until the 1900s. In fact, like so many entrepreneurs and successful women of her era, Glasse would have been completely forgotten were it not for historians and more modern authors like Wright. Here are some of her modern legacies:
The mass market cookbook
Look on Amazon's list of the top 100 books at almost any moment, and you'll see it's dominated by cookbooks. (Many of these cookbooks are specifically for the Instant Pot, which is why I think this modern marvel is arguably part of Glasse's lengthy legacy).
The Art of Cookery wasn't really the first cookbook, but Glasse was the Julia Child of her day, as hers was the first widely read and published cookbook that was self-consciously written in a tone meant for the masses.
"If I have not written in the high polite stile," Glasse wrote in an introduction, "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."
The "modern" dinner party
She was also the Martha Stewart of her day.
Were there dinner parties before this book? Certainly, but Wright calls Glasse "the mother of the modern dinner party." The difference is that she brought the idea of cooking the food itself part of the draw in get-togethers for families of more ordinary means.
"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," Wright says.
The "modernizing" palate
This is an English cookbook from nearly 300 years ago; of course it's heavy on heavy, traditional English food. But it's also a bit modern and radical for its time--advising care to be taken in washing vegetables before cooking them, for example, and cautioning against overcooking them when boiling them.
She also includes some digs at the French, who she says have an undeserved reputation for fine cooking because they drown everything in butter.
"So much is the blind folly of this age, that they would rather be imposed on by a French booby," Glasse wrote, "than give encouragement to a good English cook."
Additionally, she includes a recipe "to make a currey the Indian way," and according to Wright, the first recorded recipe for fried potatoes. So if you like french fries or chicken tikka masala, you may have Glasse to thank.
So happy birthday, Hannah Glasse--an 18th century culinary prophet who died penniless and could hardly have imagined she'd be remembered in future generations. Imagine how much backstory you'd have to give her to explain that she'd be commemorated one day with a Google Doodle.