PICTURE a crowded auditorium in Santa Monica. The audience is tense, but unlike at the cinema's Academy Awards, they are nibbling on various homemade delicacies instead of fingernails as they wait. Then the master handful of sealed envelopes, and the 1979 Christmas Cookbook Oscars are underway.
The real recipients, those who will tear open the gift wrapping in a few weeks, may well have cause to be thankful.there is an unusually wide selection of quality books in competition this year. And with the cost of weight of some of them, these books will not be given lightly.
To begin, half a dozen books can be cited for overal achievement and promise of providing memorable dishes or meals. All of them show originality in concept, skillful execution and should make a contribution to better home cooking in the 1980s.
La Methode by Jacques Pepin (Times Books, $25). Although he is one of the leading French chefs in this country, Pepin has given much of his considerable energy in recent years to teaching rather than to tending a restaurant stove. The first text to emerge from his attempt to define and isolate important steps along the pathway to superior cooking was "La Technique." In it, Pepin taught basic procedures in words and pictures -- hundreds of pictures. The result was a primer for making French cuisine at home, filled with very usable recipes. "La Methode" is an advanced class. Pepin smokes fish, pulls the fur from a rabbit, stuffs pig's feet and molds (and unmolds) eggplant custards. His "basic techniques" section ranges from how to sharpen knives to making cucumber turtles or apple swans. The new book has the advantage of the first: It is the closest approach yet to successfully reducing a cooking course to the printed page. However, the two books can stand apart from one another and "La Methode" appears to be even more stimulating and challenging. For serious would-be serious cooks.
The Classic Cuisine of Vietnam By Bach Ngo and Gloria Zimmerman (Barron's, $16.95). This is first full-length presentation of Vietnamese cuisine to be encountered in English. As such it is to be valued as a guide to reproducing many of the wonderfully subtle and rewarding dishes featured in the various Vietnamese restaurants that have sprung up here. It is also a truly beautiful volume, with stunning color photographs and recipes that range much wider than standard restaurant fare. Whether or not the reginional breakdown of Vietnamese cooking the authors offer -- Chinese-influenced preparations of the north, the spicy and elaborately decorated foods of the center and the French-influenced recipes of the south -- is completely accurate, the case Ngo makes for the nutritional appeal of Vietnamese cooking, with its grilled meats, raw vegetables and infrequent sauces, is convincing, and the recipes she and Zimmerman have created are wonderfully clear to read and good to taste.
The New Book of Breads by Dolores Casella (David White, $9.95). Delores Casella is something of a cult figure to dedicated home bakers, thanks to her "A World of Breads." That book was published in 1966. The new one was conceived, she writes, "to encourage another generation to approach baking bread with creativity and imagination." Casella doesn't frown on a breadmaking method from Betty Crocker or Pillsbury. She has discovered -- and uses -- the food processor and the crock pot. Some of the recipes are her own; others come from friends and former students. the collection should enlarge the bread repertoire of members of an older generation as well as the new.
Michel Geurard's Cuisine Gourmande by Michel Guerard (Marrow, $14.95). Here is France's most inventive chef painting, as he put it on once, with a full palate of colors. Phillip and Mary Hyman have done intelligent and imaginative translation, in some places seeking ingredients substitutions that make it more feasible for American cooks to do the recipes and in others enlarging the reader's perspective with their comments. It's hard work, this seemingly light and easy cookery, and only committed -- though no necessarily expert -- cooks should try it.
Bert Greene's Kitchen Bouquets by Bert Greene (Contemporary, 17.95) is another beautifully packaged book. It is also the season's best answer to the hostess' perennial complaint that "I need some new recipes for company." This book is loaded with dishes and food combinations you haven't encountered before. Greene is a selfmade cook (with varying degrees of inspiration creditied to his grandmother, Alice B. Toklas and Dionne Lucas) who gained fame as a proprietor of The Store in Amagansett, Long Island. With show business and literary clients to spread its fame, The Store became a prototype for the "gourmet takeout" food shops that have sprung up across the country in the past decade. These same clients pressed Greene into making an extraordinarily eclectic range of foods, examples of which are separated by personal reminiscences and chatty commentary. The book is arranged as a series of "flavors." There are 28 chapters with headings such as almound, brandy, cheese, coffee, Madeira, pepper and poppy seed. Recipe ingredients are listed in the margin in bold type, a space-consuming arrangement which ups the initial investment but makes the book much easier to use in the kitchen.
Spicy Food by Stendahl (Holt, Rinehart, Winston, $14.95). Another book for the hostess or cook in search of inspiration this volume (written by a veteran New York City restaurant critic) contains a minimum of text and a maximum of recipes. The cook or family with tongues tied by a bland diet won't be happy following Stendhal through fields of chiles and mustard, but cooks of even modest accomplishments who possess inquisitive taste buds will find much here to tempt them. The recipes could come from a United Nation's grab-bag. For example, on facing pages you will find Hungarian gulyas, Persian lamb, eggplant stew and Armenian green bean stew. On the basis of its mundane presentation (as opposed to its contents), the book is somewhat overpriced. The mail-order list is a superficial one and don't look for lore or a cross-reference list of recipes by their predominant spices. Look for it to provide some good, lively eating, however.
There are, as well, a handful of books discussed in these pages earlier in the year that should be brought back to memory. They are: The updated Fanny Farmer Cookbook (Knopf, $12.95), The Book of Latin American Cooking by Elizabeth Lambert Ortiz (Knopf, $15), Alfredo Viazzi's Italian Cooking by Alfredo Viazzi Random House, $10), New Menus from Simca's Cuisine by Simone Beck (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, $12.95), Cooking in a Small Kitchen by Arthur Schwartz (Little Brown, $8.95) and Jean Anderson's Processor Cooking by Jean Anderson (Morrow, $14.95).
Now to turn to awards in a baker's half-dozen of carefully gerrymandered categories. All the books mentioned have given performances worthy of consideration. Personality
The nominees are Chef Tell Tells All by Tell Erhardt (Schiffer, $12.95), Perla Meyer's from Market To Kitchen Cookbook by Perla Meyers (harper & Row, $15), The Maurice Moore-Betty Cookbook (bobbs-Merrill, $14.95) and My Stomach Goes Traveling by Walter Slezak (Doubleday, $10.95).
The winner is: The Maurice Moore-Betty Cookbook. This book, like its author, is so restrained that you might be tempted to put it back on the shelf with only a cursory glance. Don't. Moore-Betty has a well deserved reputation as a sound teacher and a man of great good taste. He's not plumbing the far reaches of esoterica here, just giving sensible and tasty preparations with French or British Isle accents. HOMEMAKER SERVICE
The nominees are James Beard's Fowl and Game Bird Cookery (Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich paperback, $4.95), Best Recipes From the Backs of Boxes, Bottles, Cans and Jars by Ceil Dyer (McGraw-Hill paperback, $4.95), Gifts and Good Taste by Helen Hect and Linda LaBate Mushlin (Atheneum, $10.95), Working Parent Food Book by Adeline Garner Shell and Kay Renolds and two books on turkey: The Great Year-Round Turkey Cookbood by Anita Borghese (Stein & Day, $12.95) and The Year-Round Turkey Cookbook by Barbara by Barbara Gibbons (McGraw Hill paperback, $6.95)
The winner is: The Great Year-Round Turkey Cookbook. A trend to toward eating turkey through the year has accelerated since supermarkets began featuring cut-up fresh turkey parts. In food, any trend inspires a cookbood. Turkey has inspired two and despite the similarity of their titles, the Borghese book is considerabaly more stimulating. Tipsy turkey (with sherry, tomatoes, onions and green olives), harlequin turkey breast (partially stuffed) and turkey strips in pesto are among the recipes. There is the mandatory information about stuffing and roasting whole turkeys as well as leftover suggestions. (There are signs of hasty production, too, such as a recipe for "smoked turkey drumsticks" in which the meat is boiled, not smoked.) ETHNIC
The nominees are The Paprikas Weiss Hungarian Cookbook by Edward Weiss with Ruth Buchan (Morrow, $12.95), The Great Tastes of Chinese Cooking by Jean Yueh (Times Books, $12.95), The Jewish Holiday Kithchen by Joan Nathan (Schocken, $12.95), The Chinese Peoples' Cookbook. by Mai Leung (Harper & Row $12.95).
The winners are: The Chinese People's Cookbook and The Jewish Holiday Kitchen. The former is an attempt to aquaint Americans with some of the "everyday" dishes of China. Not a book for the beginner, it will broaden the horizons of those already enthusiastic about wok cookery.
Joan Nathan is a regular contributor to The Post's food section. Her work is scholarly and careful and the recipes, some of which have been tactfully updated, emphasize taste. You don't have to be Jewish or cooking for a holiday, to enjoy this book. INTERNATIONAL COMPENDIUMS
The nominees are: The Complete International One-Dish Meal Cookbook by Kay Shaw Nelson (Stein & Day, $12.95) and The Book of World Cuisines by Howard Hillman (Penguin paperback, $4.95).
The winner is: The Complete International One-Dish Meal Cookbook. Nelson is another regular contributor to these pages. In this volume, she present casseroles, pot roasts and soups, as might be expected, but also brings in hot and cold sandwiches, pizza and meatballs and meatloaves. A very useful volume for, among others, young couples. AMERICAN REGIONAL COOKBOOKS
The nominees are: Discover Dayton by the Junior League of Dayton, Ohio; The Carolina Collection by the Junior League of Fayetteville, N.C.; Guten Appetit! by the Sophienburg Museum of New Braunfels, Tex.; Bayou Cuisine by St. Stephen's Episcopal Church of Indianola, Miss.; and The Western Junior League Cookbook (McKay, 12.95) edited by Ann Seranne.
The winner is: Bayou Cuisine. The title speaks for itself and, happily, this 400-page, spiral-bound book spends a great deal of time with down-home recipes instead of wandering the world in search of tired cliches. Availble by mail for $10.95 including postage from Bayou Cuisine, Box 1005, Indianola, Miss. 38751. NEW-STYLE COOKING
The nominees are Light Style, The New American Cuisine by Rose Dosti, Deborah Kidushim & Mark Wolke (Harper & Row, $12.95), Minceur Italienne by Beverly Cox (Vanguard, $8.95) and Cooking the Nouvelle Cuisine in American by Michele Uravater and David Liederman (Workman $14.95).
The winner is Minceur Italienne. A series of menus with calorie and carbohydrate counts for each dish, this book is every bit as upcompromising as Cooking the Nouvelle Cuisine in America but the recipes are a good deal less complicated. BOOKS ADAPTED FROM OTHER MEDIUMS OR BOOKS
The nominees are: The Whole Worlod Cookbook by the editors of 101 Productions (Scribners, $15.96), The New York Times 60-Minute Gourmet by Pierre Franey (Times Books, $10.95), The Best of Bon Appetit by the editors of Bon Appetit magazine (Knapp $16.95), Craig Claiborne's The New York Times Cookbood by Craig Claiborne with Pierre Franey (Times Books, $16.95).
The winner is: The Whole World Cookbook. This wide-ranging volume has been compiled from 35 volumes produced by 101 Productions between 1969 and 1977. The original subjects included salads, coffee, herbs, innards, jams and jellies, pickles, strawberries, tomatoes, vegetarian recipes and the food of Hungary, France, the Middle East, China and Greece. As a source for varied recipes of medium complexity, this book will do very well.