Saturday, 13 August 2011

The Original Domestic Goddess

If one was to conduct a poll to name the nation’s most influential female cookery writer, there can be no doubt that contemporary rivals Nigella Lawson and Delia Smith would vie for the number one spot. Similarly, it would come as no surprise if we saw the top five rounded out by old stalwarts like Elizabeth David, Mrs Beeton and the rather frighteningly efficient Fanny Craddock.

However, one name that would be guaranteed not to appear on any such list would be a certain Hannah Glasse, a cookery writer whose heyday was sometime during the mid 18th century. But, thanks to a chance discovery of a 200-year-old cookbook, Glasse’s recipes are currently enjoying something of a resurgence in popularity.

The book in question is a 1796 edition of The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy which was found at the back of a kitchen drawer in Plymouth, where it had languished, forgotten, for decades. The discovery was made by 73-year-old great-grandmother Sylvia Sibley when she was clearing away some of her recently deceased mother’s possessions.

It is thought that The Art of Cookery was one of the very first cookbooks to appear in English (it was first published in 1747), and is credited with introducing the nation to what was to become one of our favourite dishes – the humble chicken curry. And remarkably, the recipe - which involves frying chicken with herbs and spices before adding stock and cream - is startlingly similar to today’s versions of this much-loved classic.

Unsurprisingly, the book also features a variety of recipes which have failed to stand the test of time, with baked calf’s head and pickled pigs’ feet meriting particular mention. Also unlikely to stage a comeback are Glasse’s various ‘cures’ for ailments such as rabies and the plague (!)

But perhaps what is most interesting about this re-discovery of Glasse’s work is the insight it provides to the class-conscious society of mid 18th century England. In the book, which was written primarily to instruct servants, Glasse apologises to her upper class readers for the low-brow nature of her writing:
“I have not wrote in the high profile style. I hope I shall be forgiven, for my intention is to instruct the lower sort and therefore must treat them in their own way.”
Much like the snobbery evidenced above, the author’s xenophobia goes equally undisguised. When lamenting the rise in popularity of European cuisines, she says:
“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!”
Quite what Hannah Glasse would make of the proliferation of Italian, Spanish and French dishes favoured by our modern-day domestic goddesses is anyone’s guess!

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