AS A WRITER ON FOOD, I buy a lot of cookbooks. I devour them avidly, as my children used to gulp down comic books. Then I leave them on a small table near the couch where I do my reading. Most of them lie there unused, and after a month or so I transfer them upstairs to a little room packed with other cookbooks. Tens of thousands of hours of authors' research and recipe testing are in that room. Cookbooks that were once all the rage, that lit up the publishing sky like Fourth of July rockets, now only gather dust.

But sometimes I find myself returning again and again to my couchside table to consult a certain book for one or more recipes, until finally it is more convenient to keep it near at hand in the kitchen. It becomes part of my three- foot-long cookbook shelf, tucked between the cutlery drawers and the everyday china in the kitchen cupboard. Each time I add a book to that shelf, another one must make the journey to oblivion -- the little room upstairs.

Most of the books on the shelf have been there for over a decade. One -- a bulky, 1,680- page tome -- was a wedding present when I was married in England in 1958. It is called Mrs. Beeton's Household Management. In Britain, the book is a monument -- equivalent, let's say, to Webster's Dictionary in the United States. Mrs. Samuel Beeton, nee Isabella Mayson, married at age 20 in 1856. Her husband was already active in the Victorian food world as owner of the Englishwoman's Domestic Magazine. She published Household Management in 1861 at age 25 and died at 29 in the aftermath of childbirth. (A facsimile of the 1861 edition was published some years ago by Noonday Press, a division of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.)

My version of Mrs. Beeton has been heavily trod upon by various editors over the intervening century-plus, though there is still an old- fashioned cast to some of the recipes, I find it valuable today for one thing -- vegetables. Since it is so immense, a kind of encyclopedia of cooking, hardly anything is left out. For instance, a few months ago I bought some nice-looking parsnip puree at the market, a vegetable I had not cooked before. I'd had parsnip puree at nouvelle cuisine restaurants and decided to make something similar. I turned to Mrs. Beeton, which had an entry for mashed parsnips. That entry on page 689 said to prepare the parsnips as directed in the recipe for mashed turnips on page 707. Boil them until soft, that recipe suggested, add a bit of butter and cayenne or white pepper, and mash. I used a food processor and a tablespoon of heavy cream. The result: Paul Bocuse eat your heart out.

Next on my shelf is a volume by my one other British cookbook author, Elizabeth David. Called Elizabeth David Classics, and issued by Knopf in 1980, it is actually a compilation of three 1950s books by David, the finest of Britain's postwar cooking writers. These are marvelous, simple recipes, mostly from the Mediterranean, which have stood the test of time. I particularly recommend the beef not with ice cream, though it makes a terrific cold dish) and a tasty, easily made ratatouille. (Note that what the English call pimentos, we call bell peppers.)

NEXT ON MY SHELF are two books that are very important to home cooks of my generation -- Mastering the Art of French Cooking by Julia Child, Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle (Knopf) and The New York Times Cookbook by Craig Claiborne (Harper & Row). Both were published in 1961 and were enormously important in changing the food habits of Americans. That was the year the kitchen came out of the closet, as 1960s prosperity slowly began to reverse the cooking decline brought about by World War II. Both Claiborne and Child were advocates of the use of fresh products. Their uccess ended an era of cookbooks whose recipes began with lines like "Open a can of mushroom soup." Equally important, they were both advocates of classic French cooking, although Claiborne did not go to the painstaking lengths Child did.

As was the case with Mrs. Beeton, one can measure the impact of an epoch-making cookbook by the demand for other volumes by the same author, and my three-foot shelf reflects that. I also own volume 2 of Mastering the Art of French Cooking (1970) and From Julia Child's Kitchen (1975), as well as Claiborne's The New York Times Menu Cookbook (1966). Whenever I see that fish are varied and plentiful in the market (which also means they are cheap), I buy three or four pounds' worth, and consult the wonderful bouillabaisse recipe in From Julia Child's Kitchen.

When the leaves turn brown and gold and it is cool enough to spend a lot of time in the kitchen, my thoughts always turn to the next book on my shelf, Raymond Sokolov's The Saucier's Apprentice (Knopf). To my mind, this 1976 volume is the most unjustly neglected of contemporary American cookbooks. In it, Sokolov traces the pedigree of the classic French sauces and presents a no-short-cuts recipe for a demi-glace, a mother sauce from which a host of other sauces can easily be concocted. The opening lines of this recipe are a long way from "Open a can of mushroom soup." They call for 13 pounds of beef shin and 13 pounds of veal shank, all cut into three-inch pieces.

To prepare this demi-glace, I had to go to a restaurant supply house and buy a 32-quart stockpot and an expensive strainer called a chinois. And the sauce takes two days to make! But in the words of Edith Piaf, "Je ne regrette rien," I regret nothing. Once I have got my five quarts of mother sauce, I stow it in dixie cups in the freezer and I can then use it, following Sokolov's directions, to conjure up a panoply of other sauces in a trice. This stash generally lasts me through the winter and into the spring. I am particularly partial to Sokolov's sauce bigarde, the one used in duck are 25 possibilities to be made from his mother sauce alone.

IF THE IDEA OF spending two days making a single sauce causes you to fall to the floor and roll around laughing, perhaps you should consult the next book on my shelf, a thin paperback called French Cooking in Ten Minutes by Edouard de Pomiane (McGraw-Hill, from the hardback by Farrar, Straus and Giroux). The book originally appeared in 1930. De Pomiane was born in 1875, the son of Polish emigr,es to France. He became a physician and a food chemist at the Pasteur Institute in Paris. The subtitle of French Cooking in Ten Minutes is "Adapting to the Rhythm of Modern Life," and in a way de Pomiane is the grand-daddy of the mushroom- soup school, though other critics have noted his influence on nouvelle cuisine. The book is a godsend for those who want to eat quickly but don't want to eat trash. Think of it this way: while his recipe for sauce piquante is a lot less subtle than Sokolov's, it saves 36 hours and 20 minutes.

After the vogue for French food in the 1960s, the next trend came a decade later -- the absorption of ethnic food into the American mainstream. Three books on my shelf are particularly relevant to this movement: The Chinese Cookbook by Craig Claiborne and Virginia Lee (Lippincott, 1972), The Classic Italian Cook Book by Marcella Hazan (Harper's Magazine Press, 1973) and An Invitation to Indian Cooking by Madhur Jaffrey (Knopf, 1973).

The Claiborne-Lee volume remains the best introduction to Chinese cooking I know. Claiborne has a genius for combining authenticity with simplicity and this book is a testament to that gift. Soy sauce-spotted pages at Kung Pao chicken, beef with oyster sauce, steamed fish with meat sauce and dry-fried string beans testify to heavy use. I do a lot of Chinese cooking and this is my main man, but I supplement it with Irene Kuo's The Key to Chinese Cooking (Knopf), which is particularly good for vegetables.

Hazan also has a fine way with le verdure, and her three basic tomato sauces were a revelation to me. I particularly like Sauce III (like a pope, identified by a roman numeral): puree two cups of canned Italian tomatoes (from San Marzano) and their juice, add a quarter-pound of butter, two halves of a peeled medium yellow onion, 11/2 teaspoons of salt and a pinch of sugar and simmer, uncovered, for 45 minutes; discard onion. You'll be astounded at the freshness of the taste. The other Italian cookbooks on my shelf are comparatively recent addiltions -- Cooking From an Italian Garden by Paola Scaravelli and Jon Cohen (Holt, Rinehart, Winston) and Eat Right, Eat Well -- The Italian Way by Edward Giobbi and Richard Wolff (Knopf).

When I feel I have gastronomically overindulged, I pluck from my shelf a paperback edition of The Pritikin Program for Diet and Exercise by Nathan Pritikin and Patrick M. McGrady Jr. (Bantam, hardback by Grosset and Dunlap) and enjoy a bit of self-flagellation. In addition to its basically sound sermonizing on diet, the book has some excellent recipes. I do penance by cooking up a batch of Pritikin's minestrone or his diet vichyssoise (substituting skim milk for cream).

Three other books complete my shelf: the thought-provoking Michel Guerard's Cuisine for Home Cooks (Morrow); You've Got It Made, by Marian Burros, particularly notable for inexpensive chicken dishes, such as chicken with Indian spices, and the recently published Keeping Food Fresh by Janet Bailey (Dial). How do you treat a papaya? Bailey has the answer: buy it at least half yellow and let it ripen to full yellow for three to five days; then you can refrigerate it for up to two weeks in a plastic bag. It's an invaluable book, a mine of facts about food.

Historians such as Fernand Braudel and Theodore Zeldin write of food as a key factor in understanding a society and Claude Levi- Strauss can tell much about your culture from the way you do your potatoes. However, as Freud reputedly said, a cigar may be a phallic symbol but it is also a cigar. And while the cookbooks on my shelf do indeed tell a lot about me and my times, I am happy to say they have also put some lovely meals on my table.u

Note: Several of the cookbooks in this essay are out of print. One source for out-of-print and rare cookbooks is M.M. Einhorn Maxwell, 80 East 11th St., New York, N.Y. 10003.