First Catch Your Hare

The title page from the facsimile first edition, Prospect Books 2012[1]

‘First Catch Your Hare’ is one of those apocryphal quotations that was in fact never written, in spite of being repeatedly attributed to Hannah Glasse.

Hannah Glasse was the author of The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy first published in 1747, and although she is less well remembered than Isabella Beaton she pioneered the method of writing recipes in a systematic fashion that could be understood by anyone who could read.

That her book sold so well gives the lie to the notion that all but the richest eighteenth century women were illiterate. In fact she was at the leading edge of the rise of the self-help book, something which would really take off in the following century with the introduction of steam-powered printing.

Hannah was the illegitimate daughter of Isaac Allgood (of Brandon White House and Nunwick, Northumberland) and Mrs Hannah Reynolds. Her parents’ relationship ended after the birth of three children. Perhaps surprisingly Hannah then lived, not with her mother, whom she called a ‘wicked wretch’, but with her father and his wife, and she grew up close to her legitimate half-brother Lancelot Allgood.

In 1724 her stepmother died suddenly and her father was in very poor health so she moved in with her grandmother Ryecroft in Greville Street, Hatton Garden. It was from here that she left in secret, aged just sixteen, to marry John Glasse at Leyton in Essex on the 5th of August 1724. A month later when her grandmother found out and threw her out, she and John Glasse moved to rooms above a chemist’s shop in the Haymarket.

Over the next fifteen years Hannah bore eleven live children and suffered at least one miscarriage of twins. She corresponded with members of her father’s family in Northumberland and those letters provide most of the evidence for her life with John Glasse, who seems to have been largely without visible means of support and who died in 1747.

By this time Hannah had already indulged in several money-making ventures including selling Daffy’s Elixir, writing her cookery book, and setting up a ‘habit warehouse’, a high class clothes shop in Tavistock Street. Quite how she managed it is unclear but among her clients were royalty, including the Prince and Princess of Wales. It was perhaps her bad luck that ‘poor Fred’ the Prince of Wales died suddenly, and possibly poor management or the unpaid bills of the aristocracy that led to Hannah’s bankruptcy in 1755. This resulted in the sale of the copyright of her book The Art of Cookery, in a story sadly very similar to the sale of the copyright in Mrs Beaton’s books a century or so later.

Hannah went on to write The Compleat Confectioner and the Servant’s Directory but neither had the success of her first book.

As with Isabella Beaton, Hannah Glasse did not invent her recipes, rather she plundered a variety of sources. It seems likely that although she had not had to earn her living as a cook and came from the gentry classes, that she actually enjoyed cooking. Although she took her recipes from other sources the main change she made was to provide precise measurements of quantities where none were given in the originals. She also gave very clear instructions and simplified much of the language that had been used in earlier recipes, for example changing ‘two right oranges’ to ‘two large oranges’, and instead of ‘lard them with small Lardoons’ she has ‘lard them with little bits of Bacon’. Where Hannah was not so systematic is in her arrangement of the recipes, there was no index in the first edition, nor are all recipes for similar ingredients grouped together.

One fascinating aspect of her work is that it makes clear to us that many 18th century ingredients were a little different from now, for example eggs were generally much smaller, so if instructed to take a piece of dough the size of a hen’s egg it is well to remember this. Poultry too were smaller, but teaspoons appear to have been larger and she is probably referring to the caddy spoon used for measuring out tea rather than the smaller spoon for stirring a cup of tea. The Prospect Books facsimile of her book includes not only background to her family, but also detailed discussion of her sources, ingredients and methods of cooking.

Here is a sample recipe chosen at random. I hope to post some more in future. It should be remembered that oysters in 18th century London were still commonplace and cheap. Whether the paper used over the breast was used dry or wet I am not sure.

To marinate Fowls

Take a fine large Fowl or Turky, raise the Skin from the Breast Bone with your Finger, then take a Veal Sweetbread and cut it small, a few Oysters, a few Mushrooms, an Anchovy, some Pepper, a little Nutmeg, some Lemon-peel, and a little Thyme; chop all together small and mix with the Yolk of an Egg, stuff it between the Skin and the Flesh, but take great Care you don’t break the Skin, and then stuff what Oysters you please into the Body of the Fowl. You may lard the Breast of the Fowl with Bacon, if you chuse it. Paper the Breast, and roast it. Make good Gravy, and garnish with Lemon. You may add a few Mushrooms to the Sauce.

And if it seems as if Hannah Glasse’s story has an exclusively London bias, there is a curious postscript. For a document preserved at Nunwick Hall lists some of her surviving children, as of about 1767. Hannah the eldest was alive and unmarried, Catherine was twice widowed and had one son then living, Isaac Allgood Glasse was in Bombay, George who had joined the Royal Navy was lost at sea in 1761, and Margaret (chief partner in the habit making business) had died unmarried in Jamaica.

This raises intriguing questions about why she was there. Clearly a good living could be made in London if her mother’s client list were exploited, so had she gone to Jamaica alone or with a brother? I have not been able to find a burial record for her, nor any other trace of the Glasse family, except perhaps an Edward Glasse who was in Port Royal, and who buried a daughter called Margaret there in 1741. Was he perhaps an uncle?

[1] First Catch Your Hare…The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy, by a Lady (Hannah Glasse), a facsimile of the first edition supplemented by the recipes which the author added up to the fifth edition and furnished with a Preface, Introductory Essays by Jennifer Stead and Priscilla Bain, a Glossary by Alan Davidson, Notes and an Index. Prospect Books, Totnes, 2012. ISBN 978-1-903018-88-0.






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