Meet the poor English cook who changed American cooking forever

Illustration by W.Wangford/public domain.

Meet the poor English cook who changed American cooking forever

History + Culture

Meet the poor English cook who changed American cooking forever

America loves rags-to-riches stories, but Hannah Glasse would not have become the Founding Mother of American Cuisine had she not been born rich and died poor.

Glasse was born the illegitimate daughter of a wealthy English landowner, and was raised on her father’s country estate. She ate delicious, expensive, well-made food at his table. But in England at the time, illegitimate daughters didn’t tend to get the best marriages. So when Glasse was 16, she was married off to an Irish soldier, and they did not hold onto what money they had. By the time she was 20, Glasse and her husband were working as servants in an earl’s household.

While working in the household, Glasse noticed something – even though many servants were literate, the cookbooks they were given may as well have been written in another language. Culinary instructions tended to be opaque. “The great cooks have such a high way of expressing themselves that the poor girls are at a loss to know what they mean,” Glasse wrote in the intro to her cookbook, The Art of Cookery, Made Plain and Simple. On top of this, cookbooks tended to call for too many ingredients, and ingredients that would have been too expensive for the average English cook.

So she began writing her own cookbook, which she published in 1747, the same year her husband died. The book had the delightful subtitle Which Far Exceeds Anything of the Kind Yet Published, and was a smash hit among the servant class and the growing middle class. For a brief period of time, Glasse had money again.

Glasse did not get to enjoy the success of the book for long. She made bad financial decisions, and was bankrupt by 1754. She had to auction off the copyright to her cookbook, which was unfortunate, as it remained a bestseller for another century. Nor did she get much credit for it: the book was pirated constantly, and Glasse didn’t get much credit for her work, as she had not attached her name to the book, instead simply saying on its cover that it was “By a LADY.”

In 1757, Glasse ended up in debtors prison. When she got out, she wrote two more books aimed at the servant class, but neither did as well as the first. She died in relative obscurity in 1770.

Had she lived longer, she might have seen how long of a shadow she’d cast in the colonies. Her cookbook was on Martha Washington’s bookshelf; Thomas Jefferson and Ben Franklin both had copies as well, with Franklin enjoying it so much that he brought it with him to France and had some of the recipes translated so he could keep eating Glasse’s food while abroad.

Glasse’s simple language, aversion to wastefulness, and belief that anyone could make great food fit in perfectly in the U.S.

In 1805, decades after her death, an edition was printed specifically for an American audience, with recipes that included ingredients native to America. There’s evidence that Glasse’s recipe for fried chicken was the precursor to the American soul food staple, and her original cookbook contains some of the first known written recipes for mashed potatoes and ice cream.

She was still being read as late as the 1840’s, and her written-for-the masses, anyone-can cook approach has been emulated by every major American cookbook writer, from Amelia Simmons (who was literally the first American cookbook writer) to Irma Rombauer to Julia Child.

Glasse’s life story is a sad one, and her trajectory was the opposite of the young country she fed. But it is hard to imagine The Art of Cookery being written by someone who wasn’t downwardly mobile – Glasse tasted finer things, then found herself, in her own words, among “the lower sort.” But she stubbornly insisted that even the lower sort deserved to eat well, and she showed them how. While Glasse never went to the New World herself, her rejection of snobbery, her scrappy thrift, and the fact that she fed the revolution makes her the honorary first American cook.

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