One of the great pleasures of researching food history it is being able to get a feel for the evolution of a particular cuisine. A food culture can remain seemingly static or change ever so slowly over many decades, then develop into something unrecognizable to earlier generations within a handful of years. The driving forces behind these changes are some of the most interesting issues in food history. The introduction of a new technology or technique can have profound consequences, but often as not the reasons for the uptake, persistence or rejection of a particular dish is much more nuanced. In the English tradition cookbooks have had a profound influence on the nations diet. Unlike many other European nations the English have produced a huge number of cookbooks from 16th century onwards. While the French produced few if any new cookbooks between 1560 and 1650, in England at least 26 new titles and dozens of reprints were published.
One consequence of this abundance of in food texts is that in reading through manuscript recipes collections it is possible to see treasured family or even regional dishes that have their origin in a popular period cookbook. I have been shown the original family recipe for preserving ham from a famous regional producer, this turned out to be a copy of the recipe in Mrs Rundell's "A New System of Domestic Cookery", the most popular cookbook of the 19th century. On question that I have always had is why does a particular recipe become popular and while others do not? An interesting point of comparison is pilau v couscous.
Pilau rice dishes known under various spellings (pillaw, pellow, pelow etc) and identified as Turkish or Indian have been appearing in English cookbooks since the 17th century. In later recipes cooked meat was covered in rice and garnished with sliced hard boiled eggs and fried onions, however by the 20th century the origin of this rice dish had been forgotten and the under the name of either a "Pillow of Rice" or "Pillar of Rice" this dish had become a regional recipe in Suffolk. In 20th century sources the name "pillow or pillar" was attributed to the shape of the dish, essentially a cooked meat filling (game in Suffolk) was enclosed in a casing of boiled rice, this was shaped into a pillow/pillar, glazed with egg and baked until golden brown. Finally after four hundred years in England this dish seems to have died out in the late 20th century.
Couscous on the otherhand has a very different history in English cookery. While it has been described in English texts since the 17th century, very few recipes have been published in English until the late 20th century. The earliest couscous recipe in English that I have found was from Charles Carter's (1730) "The Complete Practical Cook". In the glossary of this book "Cuscasooe", is described as "a Dish of Capons done either with Sagoe or Vermajelly", the reference to Sago is likely to be due to the fact that 17th century English descriptions of couscous describe it as "resembling sago", in other words round balls of starch. What ever the case, Carter's recipes is actually for rice, not couscous or sago. The next recipe for couscous in an English texts appears almost 100 years later in an unusual and anonymous 1827 work, "Domestic Economy and Cookery, For Rich and Poor"
Mix some of the finest dry sifted flour in a mixture of yolk of egg, warm water, and butter ; or water, cream, or milk, and granulate it with the points of the fingers amongst dry flour, till it takes a proper consistency.
Prepare a fowl very nicely for boiling, boil the gizzard, slice it nicely, without detaching it, blanch the liver, put them into the wings, and lay the fowl into a saucepan that will just hold it, with a steamer fitted to it ; season it with mace, white-pepper, and lemon zest; put in a little water or milk, and put the steamer over it, with the granulated flour or cuscussou; make it boil, and leave it in the embers to steam till it is thoroughly cooked ; in the mean time prepare, according to the quantity, hard-boiled eggs, coloured with saffron ; dish the fowl, pour the cuscussou over, and stick the eggs in at proper distances. Any other meat or fish may be so cooked, or with rice, instead of the cuscussou."
These recipes remained gastronomic curios, making little or no impact on the British diet. This is not to say that during this period that educated and informed authors did not know of this dish. The Scottish author Meg Dods writes "It would be very easy to swell this section of the MANUAL with a formidable array of uncouth dishes and strange names,.......Yaughs, Kabaubs, and Cuscussuies, &c........but this we consider mere waste of space.." Over one hundred years after this 19th century text, "Moorish Recipes" by John, Fourth Marquis of Bute was published in 1954, again with little impact. In fact it was not until after Paula Wolfert published "Couscous and Other Good Food from Morocco" in 1973 that couscous began to become something other then a curiosity. My own first experience of couscous was in Burgundy, France in 1996, not many Australians would have know about this dish at this time. Now instant couscous is on most supermaket shelves in the UK and has become a staple starch. So why wasn't couscous more popular in England prior to the last 40 years? I think that the simple answer is that it was complicated to make and required a cooking technique (steaming) that was not used in England to great extent. This is now longer and issue instant couscous, infact I believe that the popularity of instant couscous is less about a later 20th century interest in exotic cooking and more about the ease in which this dish can be produced. Instant couscous can be cooked with boiling water alone in 3-4 mintutes, no other starch comes close for ease of use. For this reason I think that couscous will be part of the British diet for a long time to come, what will be interesting will be to see when, if ever, it will be considered a "British Dish".