“I Believe I have attempted a branch of Cookery, which nobody has yet though worth their while to write upon … If I have not wrote in the high polite 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 … So as in many other things in cookery, the great cooks have such a high way of expressing themselves, that the poor girls are at a loss to know what they mean.”
So begins the epically popular 18th century cookbook, The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy, by Hannah Glasse – a lady whose personal history includes a position in the household of the 4th Earl of Donnegal, a dress-maker’s shop in London and, eventually, debtors’ prison at Marshalsea. First published in 1747, Glasse’s cookbook was published and republished more than twenty times and its publication continued well into the middle of the 19th century. The Art of Cookery became the most popular cookbook of its time and provides an opportunity to examine and appreciate the common culinary practices in much of the English-speaking world of the 18th and early 19th centuries.
Written in plain language and geared toward household servants, The Art of Cookery promised 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 of being very good ones.” Seeing that this poor girl has but no servants, selecting and preparing a menu from Glasse’s classic cookbook rested dutifully upon my shoulders.
Working from a 2 Centuries Old Book
The Art of Cookery is no quaint 100-recipe collection; rather, it’s a monster of culinary prowess. The book weighs in at 443 pages of recipes, plus an extended preface in which Glasse expresses a vivid disdain for French cooking on English shores, a lengthy table of contents and index. You see, sorting through the book was no small task. The PDF version of The Art of Cookery is slow to load and nearly impossible to search as every page of the two-century old book was carefully scanned by the University of California and loads like a high-res photo. Never mind half the S’s look like F’s and I found myself wondering what in the hell Mrs. Glasse meant when she wrote that I ought to butter my “ftew-pan.” By the time I got to a recipe for “Favoys, Forced and Ftewed” I fuffered no more from the S and F confufion.
For the menu I wanted something both authentic and accessible to my guests. You see, as authentic as a dish of roasted tongue and udder is, my dinner guests would be quick to decline – and may never accept another invitation – were that to make the menu. Meat held a great place of distinction in the 18th century and was served often and often in multiple courses – not only among the upper class, I might add. Vegetables were incidental to the menu and fruit (aside from dried), alas, was an expensive and rare treat. Neither fruit nor vegetable was served fresh and raw. Such a practice might give you the plague, don’t you know?
Among the upper class, dinner might consist of up to twenty-four courses while dinner usually consisted of 3 to 5 courses among the middle class. For our 18th century supper, I settled on four courses based on Mrs. Glasse’s recommendations for September which include kidney beans, artichokes, radishes, cauliflower, turnips, cabbage, savoys, scorzonera, garlic, shallots and beets among others. For the menu I settled on turnip soup, dressed artichokes, forced and stewed savoys, bread and Portugal cakes. I’d hoped to make Duck Pye, but, alas I was unable to track down a pasture-raised duck this week.
Preparing an 18th Century Menu in a 21st Century Kitchen
As you can imagine, translating 18th century recipes into 21st experiences is not without its challenges. You see, my hearth is an early 1990s electric stove and my cauldron is a stainless steel stockpot picked up from Cosco six years ago. Hannah Glasse’s recipes give no little reference to cooking time and, of course, no reference to temperature. And, for a few moments, I feared my well-crafted menu would end up in a shambles and we’d end up ordering take out. Archaic terms, at least to my ear, like “a half-gill of sack” sent me searching pages and pages into the depths of Google. A half gill of sack, if you’re wondering, is about a ¼ cup of sherry.
In preparing the foods, what surprised me more than anything else was the heavy use of spice. Spices 21st century cooks rarely use outside of sweets such as allspice, nutmeg and cloves seasoned nearly every dish – both savory and sweet. Tasting clove in soup or allspice and mace in stuffed cabbage felt, initially, off-putting but, later, delicious. Currants and almonds find their way into nearly every dessert and sherry, or sack, weasels in and out of many dishes.
Turnip Soup from the Art of Cookery
Sweeter than I expected, the turnip soup was pleasantly seasoned with clove, mace, onion, celery and carrots and reminds me very much of the soups I enjoyed while traveling through the Irish countryside just after high school. Despite its composition of only vegetables, spice and a touch of butter, this turnip soup is remarkably filling and could easily be served on its own as a full meal or along with a simple salad than as a first course.
TAKE a gallon of water, and a bunch of turnips, pare them, save three or four out, put the rest into the water with a half an ounce of whole pepper, an onion stuck with cloves, a blade of mace, half a nutmeg bruised, a little bundels of sweet herbs and a large crust of bread. Let these boil an hour pretty fast, then strain it through a sieve, squeezing the turnips through; wash and cut a bunch of celery very small, set it on in the liquor on the fire, cover it close and let it stew. In the mean time, cut the turnips you saved into dice, and two or three small carrots clean scraped, and cut in little pieces: put half these turnips nd carrots into the pot with the celery and other half fry brown in fresh butter. You must flour them first, and two or three onions peeled, cut in thin slices and fried brown then put them all into the soup with an ounce of vermicelli. Let your soup boil softly till the celery s quite tender and your soup good. Season it with salt to your palate.
Artichokes from The Art of Cookery
Perhaps one of the simplest recipes in the book, artichokes and other vegetables are often prepared quite simply – boiled or steamed. Glasse warns cooks not to overcook vegetables lest they lose their sweetness and color. I’m inclined to agree with her on this, and many other points.
To Dress Artichokes
WRING off the stalks and put them into cold water, and wash them well, then put them in, when the wter boils, with the tops downwards, that all the dust and sand may boil out. An hour and a half will do them.
Stuffed Savoy Cabbages from the Art of Cookery
Among all the dishes we served, the stuffed savoy cabbages were my least favorite – though they’re not without their charm. It was the inclusion of spices I don’t customarily associate with cabbage and veal that threw my palate off. Stuffed and stewed savoy cabbage is extremely rich and deeply flavored. The force-meat, as she refers to the stuffing, is almost sausage-like in its flavor and texture and is extraordinarily spiced. Of course, spicing meat proved to effect another goal beyond preference for flavor: 18th century folks cherished meat and its place but fresh meat was difficult to come by especially in the cities. By the time meat from the countryside reached the city, it was often half-rotten and stinking. Spice, in essence, disguised its putrescence.
Force-meat, though not detailed in this recipe, consisted in other cabbage recipes of minced veal, bacon, boiled eggs, parsley, allspice and mace. Gravy, as described in her recipes, is not the thick sauce seasoned with a plenty of salt and thickened heavily with flour; rather, it more closely resembled stock or bone broth.
Savoys Stuffed and Stewed
TAKE two savoys, fill one with force-meat, and the other without. Stew them with gravy; season them with pepper and salt, and when they are near enough, take a piece of butter, as big as a large walnut, rolled in flour and put in. Let them stew till they are big enough, and the sauce thick then lay them in your dish, and pour the sauce over them. These things are best done on a stove.
Moist, rich and dotted with currants, Portugal cakes are a delightful, delicious dessert. After tasting these, I’ve no idea how they could have fallen from favor for they are one of the very best cakes I’ve ever enjoyed. Rosewater and sherry provide subtle flavoring while loaf sugar – available in ethnic markets and online as piloncillo – sweetens the cake. Unlike refined white sugar, loaf sugar as it was used in the 18th century was boiled, reduced and crystallized sugarcane juice molded into cylindrical cone-like loafs. Unrefined sugar retains much of the natural minerals found in cane juice and is an excellent alternative to white sugar. When we use sugar in our home, it’s a very rare occasion and we only use it in its natural and unrefined state. In the 18th century, sugar was a rare commodity and average consumption in England was under 10 lbs per person per year.
Glasse offered two variations of her Portugal Cakes, one prepared with flour and one prepared with blanched almond flour – noting that cake made with almonds was “better.” As you can imagine, if I were to go through the effort of preparing an 18th century menu, I wanted the better cake. I used two cake pans to prepare the recipe, but I strongly suggest that you use a spring-form pan were you to make an attempt.
MIX into a pound of fine flour, a pound of loaf sugar beat and sifted, then rub it into a pound of pure sweet butter till it is thick like grated white-bread, then put to it two spoonfuls of rose-water, two of sack, ten eggs, whip them very well with a whisk, then mix into eight ounces of currants, mixed all well together; butter the tin=pans, fill them but half full and bake them; if made without currants they will keep half a year; add a pound of almonds blanched and beat with rose-water, as above, and leave out the flour. These are another sort, and better.
In the end, the food was good, the supper party was fun and I’ll be sourcing and sharing more of these historic recipes in the coming weeks. You can, of course, view The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Simple by Hannah Glasse on Google Books. And, in keeping with 18th century availability, all our ingredients save the spices, almonds and currants were locally available. The veal I used, however, was fresh and not stinking. I can’t get that authentic.