AMONG COOKBOOKS there are the textbooks and there are those that are something more. A text book may be indispensable, like Paul Samuelson's "Economics" or the "Joy of Cooking." You pick it up when you need to know something but not for the sheer pleasure of reading. Everyone's kitchen is full of those, the tomes from which you learn the discipline. But if you're lucky, you've found the other type of cookbook, too -- the books that entertain, that nourish the mind as well as the body, that sing a special song about what cooking is all about.
I found my first such cookbook in W.H. Auden's apartment on St. Mark's Place in New York. When we sublet his apartment in 1966 we found, in addition to bits of poems and an icebox bull of such curiosities as pickled lambs tongues, "Clementine in the Kitchen" by Phineas Beck, (Hastings House, New York) a pseudonym for Samuel Chamberlain. First published in 1943, the book is a good read from cover to cover as well as a good cookbook general enough in its measures and instructions to teach you to rely on your own judgment.
My favorite recipe, which I took to reading out-loud to anyone I could buttonhole, was a recipe for escargots de bourgogne , written by Georges Lecomte and included in Clementine's green-covered collection of recipes:
"You ambush them in the morning, while they are parading nonchalantly on the humid leaf, when their slow, fleshy promenade makes one think of the throat of a voluptuous woman shuddering under a gross and clumsy caress. The snail, sticky and thick, carries its light shell with a facetious air, and projects or contracts its horns, so lasciviously elastic, as the mood pleases him."
Several hundred words later it gets to the more familiar parts of the preparation:
"All that remains for you is the delicate routine of an artist, a sumptuous chef. C'est charmant . In a radiant copper casserole you spread out this flesh which has ceased to suffer, accompanied by the traditional and poetic bouquet of bay leaf, parsley and thyme. In order that the vegetable garden and the wine cellar may join in the festivities, you add a handsome golden brown onion, the silver of a section of garlic and the sunshine of a glass of cognac. Then you dilute this appetizing mixture in water and let it simmer over a calm, tranquil little fire for six or seven hours. And then, what aromas arise as you lift off the cover: Your snails are impregnated with with all of these fine substances. Let them cool peacefully, like a wise man not too impatient for his pleasure; wash and wipe the shells as you would handle precious bits of porcelain. In each shell pour adroitly one unctuous spoonful of good jus de viande . As soon as you think the snails are cold, make a pious resitution of each one, by putting in in a shell thus prepared. And when the animal, unaware of trhe fine nectar into which it is being plunged, reclines gracefully in the sauce, block up the opening of the shell with a thick layer of beaten butter, joyously sown with chives, shallots, salt, pepper and chopped parsley."
The book goes on with Clementine's comments on the recipe and a short discourse of the sex life of the snail. It is, perhaps, not the story you want to read to vegetarian friends, but a great moment in a great book nonetheless.
Other pleasures are smaller -- a good anecdote or a good line in a cookbook that is conversational and personal. In "New Orleans Creole Recipes" by Mary Moore Bremer published by Dorothea Thompson, Waveland, Miss.), the author tells of an overheard coversation between a New Orleans mother and daughter in a room next to hers. c
"They started talking softly but their voices grew higher and higher as they went on. At last I heard the daughter say, 'Mamma, did you say one half onion?' and the answer came back high and clear, 'No, my child, I said three quarters of a small onion.' She had said the final word; and I learned about onions from her, and I was to learn more of such important matters when a certain elegant dinner, to be given by a very knowing New Orleans man, was postponed because of the kind of saffron he preferred had not arrived from Spain and he would accept no other."
In "The Taste of Country Cooking" by Edna Lewis of Freetown, Va., there are recipes for a Christmas breakfast that end with a paragraph about bourbon.
"About bourbon, I was an authority on the smell of it. Grandpa always presided over the bottle of bourbon that Uncle George brought from New York. Exposing a bottle of whiskey just wasn't done. As children, all we ever saw were the little glasses being passed to the guests, and on special occasions the little glasses would appear on the breakfast table. All I ever remember seeing was the sugar left in the bottom of the glass, and the divine aroma filling the room. That bourbon smell became associated with Uncle George and other festive occasions, along with the aroma of a cigar that only Uncle George brought."
Equal to or surpassing "Clementine" as a good read is "Cross Creek Cookery," by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, author of "The Yearling," "South Moon Under" and "Cross Creek."
"I disremember, as we say at the Creek, just when I began shooting chickens for the table . . . But a hot summer day found old Martha and me alone, with company coming, and we ran chickens until we dropped from exhaustion and never touched a feather. . .
"We needed the meat, and it was entirely sporting and made a difficult long shot to use a rifle and aim for the head or neck. When I got back my breath, I loaded my .22 rifle and potted the necessary broilers through the heads.
"Came a day when, from too frequent shooting, I had only to appear in the yard with my .22 to have every chicken on the place scatter for the distant woods. I stalked like a panther. When I came within range, the young rooster I was after moved his head every time I fired. A dignified professor and his haughty wife were coming for dinner. I was desperate. I returned to the house for my shotgun and ignominously, violating all rules of sportsmanship, brought down my bird. Dinner went off nicely, and the professor's grave face brightened as he bit into the succulent breast of chicken, pan-browned and oven-baked in sherry. There was a grinding noise, the professor blanched, and he removed his mouthful of chicken breast and poked at it with his fork. Two little lead pellets rolled to the plate. If it has been one little lead pellet, I should have insinuated that he had best consult his dentist. There were two. It was one of the more cowardly moments of my life. I ran for more wine and asked the professor's opinion on James Joyce. There are, simply, people to whom one can explain that one shoots chickens for the table and people to whom one cannot. . ."
Here is Rawlings' excellent recipe for squab-size roast chicken, quail, doves, rabbit and squirrel. I have cooked wild doves, supplied to me by a friend who is a hunter, in this way for one of the best dishes I have ever served.
For every small whole chicken (or dove), prepare stuffing made of 1/3 cup of dry bread crumbs, sauteed in 1 tablespoon of butter, and 2 tablespoons coarsely broken pecan meats. Stuff chickens (or squabs), roll in salted and peppered flour and brown to a golden color in butter. Place in a casserole or roaster. fDrain off from frying pan all but 4 to 6 tablespoons of the cooking butter, according to the number of chickens. Add 2 cups boiling water to remaining fat, stirring well to gather up all the browned particles. Pour over chickens. Add 1/4 cup dry sherry for every chicken. Cover tightly and cook in oven at 350 degrees until thoroughly tender, about 1 1/2 hours. It is sometimes necessary to add more hot water, as there should be a thin gravy. Fluffy rice is especially good with this dish.