COOKBOOKS are a madness for me, to the point where I desperately long to buy second copies of those I already own, simply for the pleasure of acquiring them once again. I dip into most of my collection only occasionally. Some of the general cookbooks and specialty books on ethnic cuisines or categories of food I use with some frequency. But I turn constantly to less than two dozen of the lot. And while I may not be taken with every one of the recipes they contain, the dishes I choose to cook from them work and are eaten with pleasure by my family and our friends.
My favorite cookbooks are written by six individual or aggregate authors, four of whom are or have been cookery teachers: the late, great Henri-Paul Pelleprat, who in the 1930s brought the Paris Cordon Bleu to its loftiest heights; Michael Field, who until his death divided his time between being a concertizing duo-pianist and running a cooking school in New York; Madeleine Kamman, probably the best cookery teacher living today, who recently decamped from Cambridge, Massachusetts, to France, and Julia Child, Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle, the triumvirate from whose Paris-based Ecole des Trois Gourmandes was born Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Volume I (1961, Knopf, $20). These teachers can teach -- not only techniques but also balance, clean taste and a lack of fussiness.
The non-teachers of my group are no slouches either. The Chamberlains (Samuel, Narcissa and Narcisse), with their vast knowledge of food and cooking, have produced gems of simplicity and excellence. Elizabeth David is sui generis -- knowledgeable, wildly imaginative, witty, literate and stubborn as a mule in her refusal to adapt her recipes to the more explicit American format. The works of all these writers have taste in common, but otherwise they are very different from one another.
Pelleprat's masterpiece, Modern French Culinary Art (rev. ed., 1974, CBI Publishing), is the granddaddy of basic cookbooks. This fat, splendidly produced and lavishly illustrated volume covers the haute cuisine of the great chefs, the cuisine bourgeoise of French women, French regional cooking plus what Pelleprat calls "impromptu" cooking, in which one does very well indeed with whatever one has. In addition to recipes that cover these categories, Pelleprat explains basic techniques and goes on to give numerous variations on his themes. A brilliant example is the section on souffl,es. The recipes are so concise and so uncomplicated that it would be easy to mistake simple for simplistic. Not for a minute; this is very sophisticated stuff. Price is the drawback to rushing out to buy Pelleprat. My own copy, the 1966 edition, was sold at $19.75 pre-Christmas, $22.50 thereafter. Today the book sells for $99.60 (and is stocked, so far as I know, by one store in Washington).
Michael Field's Cooking School (rev. ed. 1977, Holt, Rinehart and Winston, $10) consists of elegant recipes accompanied by clear instructions, relevant discussions and useful caveats. The number of recipes is not extensive, but each is a jewel, and the cook who follows them is bound to end up with impeccable results. In Culinary Classics and Improvisations (no longer in print), Field treats leftovers not as garbage that must somehow be gotten rid of but rather as already cooked ingredients necessary to create yet more glories for the table. This is "back-to- back" cooking at its best. His All Manner of Food (no longer in print) is a collection of interesting little essays on various odd categories of food plus good recipes for using these foods.
Madeleine Kamman has been called the unsung heroine of cuisine bourgeoise. Her The Making of a Cook (1978, Atheneum paperback, $8.95) is a no-nonsense primer of basic French cooking methods and how these relate to American cuisine. The book is organized according to methods or techniques and illustrated with uncomplicated recipes. Kamman's solid information and her direct, unaffected approach should reassure the most nervous beginner. Each chapter of When French Women Cook (1976, Atheneum, $13.95; paperback, $9.95) begins with a remarkable, touching and evocative tribute to the women in Kamman's extended family who educated her in their kitchens. The recipes that follow these essays represent French regional cooking at its most inventive, original and interesting. Kamman must have tested every glitch out of them because they all work to perfection. It's a wonderful book.
Those who aren't averse to words and who want to know not only what to do in the kitchen but also why, love both volumes of Mastering the Art of French Cooking (Knopf, $40 the set). Mastering, which revolutionized American cooking and tastes, is still the best teacher of basic French cooking techniques and menu planning. The various contributions of the authors become evident when each spins off into solo efforts. From Julia Child's Kitchen (1975, Knopf, $17.50), a gold mine of information for home cooks, retains the scrupulous attention to detail that make Mastering so remarkable. Simone Beck's Simca's Cuisine (1972, Knopf, $16.95; Random House paperback, $4.95) and New Menus from Simca's Cuisine (1979, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, $12.95) are shining examples of creative menu planning with inventive recipes to satisfy the most knowledgeable palate. The cooking times tend to be slightly off in many recipes (too short, at least, rather than too long) and the approach generally is far less compulsive than that in Mastering. The focus on how food tastes is even more pronounced in Louisette Bertholle's Secrets of the Great French Restaurants, (no longer in print) whose superb recipes would have benefitted from some elaboration and a recipe index. But Bertholle's French Cuisine For All (1980, Doubleday, $19.95) is a triumph of taste and charm. Despite its inadequate index and slight lapses, this book could turn a novice into an accomplished cook.
The Chamberlains have the modesty, security and scholarship to let their food speak for itself. The recipes, which in four of their books appear under wonderfully evocative photographs, are short and sweet, yet none of their authenticity is dissipated by spurious substitutions or specious adaptations. They assume the cook knows enough technique to make the recipes, so while they tell what to do, they don't bother telling how to do it. The Flavor of France (1978, Hastings, $14.95) is devoted to real, live French home cooking and regional foods. The recipes for hors d'oeuvres in variety are the best I know. The Flavor of Italy (1965, Hastings, $9.95) is Italian, not Italo-American. And rather than being littered with clones from their countries of origin, the recipes from The Chamberlain Sampler of American Cooking (1961, Hastings, $9.95) reflects the changes that take place when immigrant food is transformed and takes on an American life. French Menus for Parties, (Hastings, $9.95) which draws its recipes from The Flavors of France, is useful for those who are unsure about menu planning. I also have a particular affection for Clementine in the Kitchen (rev. ed. 1963, Hastings, $7.95), a funny, tender memoir of the cook the Chamberlains brought back from France.
My favorite six of Elizabeth David's fabulous books are available in paperback; three of them have also been reissued in one hard-cover volume Elizabeth David Classics (Knopf, $15.95). Although I would not commend these to beginning or insecure cooks -- her instructions range from vague to nonexistent--a friend of mine who is militantly nonverbal tells me she really did learn to cook from David's books, which only proves once more that generalizations are foolish. David probably knows more about food and its origins than anybody, and her work reflects her scholarship. French Country Cooking (1969, Penguin paperback, $3.50) and Friench Provincial Cooking (1970 Penguin paperback, $3.50) are treasure troves of both traditional and original regional dishes. Mediteranean Food (Penguin paperback, $2.95) is the same for Italian, Spanish, French, Greek, Syrian and Turkish dishes. Italian Food (1970, Penguin, paperback $3.50) has wonderful northern and southern recipes. Summer Cooking (1980, Penguin paperback, $2.95) is perhaps the most inventive of her books, full of extraordinary and wonderful dishes. It contains a recipe for paupiettes of sole in lettuce leaves, anticipating nouvelle cuisine by a good 15- 20 years, and the soups are particularly fine. Spices, Salts and Aromatics in the English Kitchen (1981, Penguin, $4.95) puts the lie to the charge of blandness and boredom in English food. Some of David's recipes, for dishes she seems not to care too much for but which she feels should be included, should be viewed with a raised eyebrow. But the majority of the recipes are not only a joy to read but a glory to eat.