Welcome to the first of my Book Club series! The Homestyle Alchemy Book Club will feature book reviews and reflections on thought provoking titles. I plan to mostly talk about obscure, vintage, antique, and/or classical books, however I will occasionally include modern titles. Today, I will be talking about the very first antique cookbook I ever bought: The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy by Hannah Glasse.
My obsession over antique cookbooks
I love a good cook book—especially an antique one. They take us back in time where tastes and ingredients are exotic, yet familiar, and give us a peek into the lives of our ancestors’ pasts where living was an endless struggle from war to illness to food preparation.
Despite knowing this before the cottagecore craze, I still had my own cottagecore phase where I obsessed over ye olde cookbooks and their intoxicating, grungy bindings. After all, cottagecore is meant to only showcase the pretty side of rural and traditional life. Ask anyone who owns and operates a real farm or homestead, and they will quickly debunk the idea that rural life is “simple” or “easier.” It is not for the faint of heart.
Reading through antique cookbooks and historical accounts will quickly remind you that doing things as our ancestors did in the olden days was true drudgery. What I can say, however, is that this type of work can feel meaningful when incorporated into our modern lives, rather than replacing our modern lives.
Baking a loaf of bread from scratch, for example, is truly satisfying work. Learning how it used to be done is satisfying in that there is something enjoyable and genuine about working with your head and hands as opposed to turning on a switch to a machine or swiping a loaf off the supermarket shelf. Plus, it is a valuable survival skill!
So, I attempted to collect vintage and antique cookbooks to explore some older methods of cooking and possibly try their recipes. How else am I to learn the proper way to boil rabbits or to boil a tongue?
One of the most famous books that comes to mind for many food historians is The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy by Hannah Glasse. When I searched for original copies of the book, I had to rethink my initial idea of only buying original volumes of antique cookbooks because… these prices, though….
Honestly, what did I expect for a famous book from nearly three hundred years ago?
I forewent the dream of an antique book collection for now, and decided to settle for modern reprints that have the same content.
About the Author
Hannah Glasse was born “Hannah Allgood” on March 1708 in London to a landowner named Isaac Allgood, and his mistress Hannah Reynolds. Isaac Allgood himself hailed from a respectable family originally from Northumberland, and he was married to a vintner’s daughter named Hannah Clark.
Is it just me, or is it a bit awkward that Isaac Allgood’s wife, mistress, and daughter all have the same name?
Glasse spent most of her young life living with her father’s family. In fact, she did not have an amicable relationship with her mother, labeling her as a “wicked wretch” (Dickson Wright, 2011). In a drunken stupor, Allgood signed away all of his family’s property to his mistress Hannah Reynolds in 1714 (Robb-Smith, 2004). After an ugly separation, the Allgood family would eventually get their property back… in 1740 (Robb-Smith, 2004).
In 1724 at the age of sixteen, Hannah Allgood eloped with John Glasse, a thirty year old Irish subaltern (junior officer), and moved to Piccadilly against the wishes of her family—particularly her grandmother (Robb-Smith, 2004). Fortunately, Glasse and her family reconciled, and she continued to have a positive relationship with her family as shown in their letter correspondences. Hannah and John Glasse would go on to have ten children, five of which did not survive childhood. For those who did survive, Glasse ensured both her sons and daughters received an adequate education, which was extremely important to her.
Unfortunately, the Glasses constantly struggled financially, which was the primary reason Glasse wrote her her famous book The Art of Cookery.
The original Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy was published in 1747 as a way for Glasse to make money. However, she did go into writing with an idea in mind: to address the need for practical and user-friendly cookbooks for, as she put it, “…the most ignorant Person, who can but read, will know how to do Cookery well,” (Glasse, 1747).
Despite her tendencies to insult servants and the French, the book did omit overly complicated instructions often present in the cookbooks of that time period. There was a huge cultural emphasis on protecting intellectual property at that time since your intellectual property was your livelihood and it could easily be stolen.
Glasse’s book became an instant success, and significantly impacted culinary literature of the time. It was easily accessible to the public, clearly written, emphasized that cooking need not be complicated, and focused on fresh, seasonal produce in addition to imported spices.
The book even features a section called “How to Market,” which provides instructions and tips on shopping for the freshest, quality meats and dairy. During her time, there was no regulation around safe food, so it was up to the individual to know how to differentiate between fresh meat and stale meat.
It was truly a “free market” where everything was at your own risk.
Glasse’s book was reprinted several times with twenty editions being published in the 18th century alone. Even George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin owned copies of this book. Her later work includes The Servants’ Directory (1760) and The Compleat Confectioner (1760). Unfortunately, The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy would be her one hit wonder in both England and the United States.
The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy is full of fun roasts and shameless plugs. The book boats itself as “Excelling any Thing of the Kind ever yet published,” (Glasse, 1747). The book goes in order from “how to Market” to roasting and boiling to frying, to soups and broths, sauces and pickling, to cakes and preserves.
The book houses long forgotten flavors that might seem odd today, such as Egg Pie, a hard boiled egg pie sweetened with cinnamon, nutmeg, currants, and rose-water; and Ketchup, which is not the tomato based condiment we know today, but rather a condiment of stewed mushrooms with cloves, mace, red wine, and ginger.
The end of the book features menu ideas for three course meals, and recipes for… wash balls (soap) and lip balm (that is so random).
Items from “The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy
I have been researching how to reconstruct the recipes from this book, however it is taking some time since the measurements and cooking methods are quite different from today’s standards. There is also the reality that not all of the foods are to our modern taste.
I have been able to adjust some weights and measures for the ingredients, but I honestly have not been entirely successful recreating the items in a way that made them palatable (many items have been extremely strong in flavor or… alcohol content).
However, some sites, such as Colonial Williamsburg’s Historic Foodways, has modernized many historic recipes and posts new ones every so often on their website.
If you are able to visit Colonial Williamsburg, you can watch the food being made in real time with reenactors using historic tools and methods. I have been fortunate to be able to see the items below from Glasse’s book:
To make Currant jelly
STRIP the currants from the stalks, put them in a stone jar, stop it close, set it in a kettle of boiling water, half way the jar, let it boil half an hour, take it out, and strain the juice through a coarse-hair sieve; to a pint of juice put a pound of sugar, set it over a fine clear fire in your preserving-pan or bell-metal skillet; keep stirring it all the time till the sugar is melted, then skim the scum off as fast as it rises. When your jelly is very clean and fine, pour it into gallipots; when cold, cut white paper in brandy; then cover the top close with white paper, and prick it full of holes; set it in a dry place, put some into glasses, and paper them.
To make Short Gingerbread
One pound of superfine flour, to half a pound of good fresh butter, and so on in proportion to the quantity you wish to make, beat your butter till it froths, half an ounce of ginger, a few caraway seeds, and one pound of sugar, roll it out thin and bake it. Common gingerbread is made the same way, only molasses instead of sugar.
To season an Egg- Pie
Boil twelve eggs hard, and shred them with one pound of beef-suet, or marrow shred fine. Season them with a little cinnamon and nutmeg beat fine, one pound of currants clean washed and picked, two or three spoonfuls of cream, and a little sack and rose-water mixed all together, and fill the pie. When it is baked stir in half a pound of fresh butter, and the juice of a lemon.
One thing that disappoints me about the modern world is how quickly we abandon ancient knowledge in favor of convenience. I sometimes wonder about a day when everyone may be forced back into agrarian societies with little to no electricity or running water, internet, and other modern conveniences. Will we be prepared? How would we transition?
Reading primary sources and going to interactive living museums helps me realize that our ancestors were not “dumb” as we are often to think. They were very innovative, and you can see just how skillful and artistic they were, creating beautiful and functional things with their head and two hands.
The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy receives a 5/5.
I will be honest: I will unlikely rate a primary source as anything under 5/5 because the point of it is to learn from it as an artifact. I cannot justly rate it using today’s modern standards because the tastes and expectations of the past versus today are marginally different.
I will say, however, that the recipes have been hit or miss because as a modern cook and baker, I would not know of many steps, tools, and ingredients that have been omitted because basic, common sense knowledge of ovens, pots, and other technologies have not been recorded. It would be like a modern recipe today explicitly having instructions for how to use refrigerator, oven, or stovetop.
However, with patience, trial, and error, these recipes can be recreated to be palatable for us today. Some recipes, such as sugar cookies and a good Crust for great Pies have not changed much and can easily be made today.
Apicius de re Coquinaria by Francesco Leonardi
The Compleat Housewife by Eliza Smith
Kitab al-Tabikh by Muhammad bin Hasan al-Baghdadi
The Williamsburg Art of Cookery by Helen Bullock
What do you think about The Art of Cookery or antique recipes? Write your thoughts in the comments below.
Colonial Williamsburg, (2023). Recipes. Retrieved from https://www.colonialwilliamsburg.org/learn/recipes/?gclid=CjwKCAjw36GjBhAkEiwAKwIWyTAgEf86QDGOOgxFSN3uVyHDDqGUSya2O6ugda4yo4mdtHbjVICzGxoCJ8wQAvD_BwE&gclsrc=aw.ds
Glasse, Hannah (1805). The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy. The Revolutionary 1805 Classic. Dover Publications, INC.