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Why Hannah Glasse, author of the 18th century’s Joy of Cooking, is worth reading today

Celebrate the author’s 310th birthday with her recipe for everlasting syllabub.

Cook with Food, Frans Snyders, 1630s
Cook With Food, Frans Snyders, 1630s.
Wikimedia Commons/2A02A03F
Constance Grady is a senior correspondent on the Culture team for Vox, where since 2016 she has covered books, publishing, gender, celebrity analysis, and theater.

Hannah Glasse, whose 310th birthday is the subject of today’s Google Doodle, is part of the reason we have The Joy of Cooking today. That’s because in 1747, Glasse popularized the modern English-language cookbook as the author of The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy.

“I believe I have attempted a branch of Cookery, which nobody has yet thought worth their while to write upon,” the first page begins.

At the time, cookbooks were mostly for fancy professional chefs, and mostly French, but Glasse wrote her cookbook for housewives and domestic servants of the new middle class. With her help, Glasse writes in her preface, “I dare say, that every servant who can but read will be capable of making a tolerable good cook, and those who have the least notion of Cookery cannot miss being very good ones.”

That idea, plus or minus an assumption of hired help, is more or less the concept that brought us The Joy of Cooking in the 20th century: Anyone can make something edible with help, and most people can make something pretty good, as long as you have a book to show you the way. And like Joy, The Art of Cookery is essentially a household encyclopedia, clocking it at over 400 pages in its facsimile edition. Most of the recipes aren’t original — many of them were taken whole cloth from contemporary sources — but Glasse’s clean, crisp instructions rendered them usable to any literate person of her time, not just trained chefs.

Glasse doesn’t just stop at food. She also offers recipes and techniques for soaps, medicines, cosmetics, and keeping a clean and vermin-free household, all of which she approaches with salt-the-earth gusto. For bedbugs, she advises mixing mercury with egg whites and anointing the bedstead with the resulting concoction. “It is a certain cure,” she concludes, “and will not spoil anything.” (PSA: Do not smear mercury over your bed.)

Looking over the book today, it can be tempting at times to try to use The Art of Cookery as a modern cookbook. Glasse’s assumption that her readers will be butchering their own animals and then thriftily using every part has a certain nose-to-tail trendiness, and quite a bit of her advice for best cooking practices holds up today. “Most people spoil garden things by over-boiling them,” she remarks. “All things that are green should have a little crispness, for if they are over-boiled, they neither have any sweetness or beauty.” Too true, Mrs. Glasse; too true.

But what makes The Art of Cookery most charming to read in the 21st century is what Anne Shirley would describe as its “scope for imagination.” You might not necessarily want to make or eat this recipe, but isn’t it fun to imagine Glasse’s “everlasting syllabub”?

Take five half pints of thick cream, half a pint of Rhenish wine, half a pint of sack, and the juice of two large Seville oranges; grate in just the yellow rind of three lemons, and a pound of double-refined sugar well beat and sifted; mix all together with a spoonful of orange-flower water; beat it well together with a whisk half an hour, then with a spoon take it off, and lay it on a sieve to drain, then fill your glasses: these will keep above a week, and are better made the day before.

The best way to whip syllabub is, have a fine large chocolate-mill, which you must keep on purpose, and a large deep bowl to mill them in: it is both quicker done, and the froth stronger; for the thin that is left at the bottom, have ready some calf’s foot jelly boiled and clarified, there must be nothing but the calf’s foot boiled to a hard jelly; when cold take off the fat, clear it with the whites of eggs, run it through a flannel bag, and mix it with the clear which you saved of the syllabubs; sweeten it to your palate, and give it a boil, then pour it into basins, or what you please: when cold, turn it out, and it is a fine summery.

All those lush, colorful food words rendered unfamiliar by 300 years; those run-on imperative sentences that briskly conclude by advising the reader to “pour it into basins, or what you please”: it’s like reading a bossy tone poem, or a tiny and beautiful short story. You don’t even have to know anything about syllabub beyond the fact that it is fun as heck to say to enjoy reading it.

(Syllabub, incidentally, is an old-fashioned English dessert made by combining dairy and alcohol so that the dairy curdles. You can learn how to make a modern version here, but it seems that no one has yet improved upon Hannah Glasse’s technique of whisking by hand to get the proper texture. Maybe if you find a fine large chocolate mill that you can keep on purpose?)

The Art of Cookery can be a sheer sensuous pleasure to read — and it’s also the godmother of the books that taught the rest of us how to cook. Happy 310th birthday, Hannah Glasse, and thank you for helping us feed ourselves for all these years.

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