First catch your hare
Cookery books are the staple fare of the book trade, Publisher’s Weekly reporting that sales rose by 21% in 2018, compared with 2017. It has been ever thus. The 19th century blockbuster, Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management, published between 1859 and 1861, and its 18th century equivalent, The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy by Hannah Glasse, published in 1747 and a best-seller for over a century, were the go-to books for culinary advice.
In this age of supermarkets and an inexhaustible supply of ingredients to hand, it is easy to forget that there was a time when often the only way of getting what was to be the centre of your culinary masterpiece was to hunt or catch it yourself. The phrase “first catch your hare”, other variants include fish or carp, is now used figuratively to indicate the first step you must take when undertaking a task or project. A tongue-in-cheek statement of the bleedin’ obvious it undoubtedly is, but how often have you reached into the cupboard and found that you are out of what you need to make your dish? You can never overstate the need to assemble all your ingredients before you start.
A variant of the phrase can be traced back to the 13th century to the English legal commentator, Henry de Bacton. In his De legibus et consuetudinibus Angliae, he wrote, “and the common folk say that you must first catch your stag, and after it has been caught skin it”. Sensible advice and the fact that he is talking about a stag rather than a hare is no matter, the type of fauna was interchangeable over the centuries. What is also interesting is that Bacton claims that, as a piece of advice, it has an almost proverbial status. It was a well-known saying at the time.
That said, as a phrase it seems to have fallen out of favour, at least in the written word, only reappearing in the 19th century, and then in the figurative sense. Thackeray, in The Rose and the Ring, published in 1855, wrote, “a soldier, Prince, must needs obey his orders; mine are…to seize wherever I should light upon him. First catch your hare, exclaimed his Royal Highness”. The Times lamented on August 25, 1858: “bitter experience has taught us not to cook our hare before we have caught it”.
Earlier examples from the 19th century attribute the saying to Hannah Glasse. The Tyne Mercury used the phrase in its edition of July 18, 1815 thus; “first catch your hare, says Mrs Glass”. The Morning Advertiser of February 11, 1819 when reporting on the steps the Spanish government were going to take towards foreigners fighting on the side of South American insurgents, noted, “this is something like the recipe of Mother Glasse for dressing carp – first catch your carp and then kill it”.
The problem, though, is that nowhere in her crowd-pleasing cookery classic does Hannah Glasse use the verb catch immediately before any member of the animal kingdom, be they animal, fish or fowl. The doyenne of 18th century cooking was not keen to get her hands dirty with the unpleasant and intensely frustrating task of catching and killing the main ingredient. The nearest she got to the phrase was in a recipe for roasting a hare was “take your hare when it is cas’d (skinned) and make a Pudding”. Her common formulation was to use the imperative of the verb to take and position it before the creature.
What are we to make of all this?
A variant of the phrase existed in the 13th century, if not earlier. It may have fallen into disuse over time, at least in printed form, before having a renaissance in the 19th century. To add a touch of celeb-glitz to the phrase, users dragged Hannah Glasse’s name into the equation. Still, it meant her name lived on.