Today's cookbooks are often more than just recipes. Some of the most interesting are a mixture of history, literature, and culture. People are more curious about the origins of the food they eat, and cookbooks reflect this interest.
Some cookbooks are also whimsical, and a few are even poetic.
Shoofly pie, creamed chipped beef, New England baked beans, smothered chicken - you'll find these and a lot more classic American recipes in Anita Prichard's Back-To-Basics American Cooking (Putnam, $18.95).
If your grandmother made it, it may well be between these covers. This is a good first cookbook, full of basic logic and good advice. No more excuses for sticky rice. Mrs. Prichard spends 2 1/2 pages explaining the pitfalls and solutions on that one alone.
Drinks Without Liquor, by Jane Brandt (Workman Publishing, Paperback, $5.95), will surely quench every imaginable thirst.
Here are drinks for those with a sweet tooth or sour. How about a curried clam and tomato starter for an elegant dinner gathering? Or an orange eggnog for New Year's Eve? And what kid wouldn't like a peanut butter 'n jelly drink for lunch? - a veritable sandwich in a glass! There are 175 recipes in all, for every holiday, climate, or occasion.
You'll never want to look another radish rose in the face once you've read Margo Kokko's The Final Touch (CBI Publishing Company, $19.95), and you'll never have to. With this book, onions will blossom into water lilies, and carrots and green peppers will become palm trees with the flick of your wrist.
Ms. Kokko learned mukimono (the art of carving vegetables and fruit into flowers) from her teacher, Takahashi-san. He spoke no English, and she spoke no Japanese. Pantomime became their common language.
The photographs are few but beautifully done in full color.
Someone has been in the kitchen with Dinah! And Dinah's been busy writing the recipes down.
Most of them (over 500) are compiled in The Dinah Shore Cookbook (Doubleday,
What surprised me about this book is that it's better than I thought it would be. Somehow I expected artificial cream topping and canned mandarin oranges. Not so. The recipes are solid. Most are from famous friends who actually do cook, and well-known restaurants throughout the country. Each recipe has a folksy Dinah lead-in including a little anecdote about its discovery.
Let's hear it for the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Not for its music this time - for its cookbook, The Boston Symphony Orchestra Cookbook (Houghton Mifflin Company, $18.95).
When word went out that the BSO was compiling a cookbook as part of its 100th aniversary celebration, conductors put down their batons, violinists put down their fiddles, and opera singers came out of the shower.
And in came the recipes - hundreds of them. Jeorge Mester and Frederica von Stade sent chicken dishes. Vladimir Ashkenazy sent a fruit stuffing for poultry. Neville Marriner offered his summer pudding, and Eileen Farrell gave a recipe for minted fruit.
There's plenty here too from members and friends of the orchestra.
No matter what your taste in music is, you'll find most of these recipes simple and very palatable.
If the thought of classic French cooking leaves you trembling, consider Elianecq Ame-Leroy Carley's Classics from a French Kitchen (Crown Publishers Inc., $24.95).
Mme. Carley gives her share of praise to France and its chefs, making only nodding references to food of non-French origin: ''Coulibiac is a Russian pate served in France at festive and elegant parties.''
But along with this she has done great service to American cooks. Recipes are remarkably simple, short, and clear. Most are only a few paragraphs long.
Historical notes precede many recipes, and are fascinating. This book is as enjoyable to read on the living room couch as it is practical in the kitchen.
Dictionaries are always good to have around, if only to settle arguments. They can also be fun.
I ''reviewed'' the Dictionary of American Food & Drink, by John F. Mariani (Ticknor & Fields, $19.95), at a small dinner party at my house recently. Someone would call out a word, and we would see if it was listed and read the definition.
The first one was ''johnnycake.'' Nothing under ''J.'' Failure, we thought. I checked the index and there it was, listed under ''pancakes'' - complete with two recipes.
We didn't read the book from ''abalone'' to ''zwieback,'' but did spend much of the evening with it and found it informative, entertaining, and full of surprises.
Did Mr. Mariani forget anything? ''Prunes,'' he said. ''I don't know why, I just forgot about prunes.''
Alfredo Viazzi's Cucina e Nostalgia (Random House, $17.95) is mostly a personal memoir of recipes and menus collected or recollected during his life in Italy before he came to America.
It focuses on the elegant cuisine of northern Italy. Also included is a helpful section on how to pick out the best of meats, fruits, and vegetables in the marketplace,
as well as some of Mr. Viazzi's favorite restaurants both here and abroad.
''Complete'' cookbooks are usually disappointing, but The Complete Seafood Book (Macmillan, $15.95) is an exception.
It's not really complete, but James Wagenvoord and Woodman Harris have compiled a fascinating reference/cookbook.
Especially interesting are drawings of over 100 most popular edible fish and shellfish, along with their Latin names, descriptions, and how, when, and where caught.
Included also is a Q&A on some of the most frequently asked questions about seafood, as well as a running glossary of terms.
Not included in the tiny-print index in the middle of the book is the ''in'' but ugly monkfish.
A practical cookbook for a worthy cause is America's Best - A National Community Cookbook (Workman Publishing, $13.95). This collection of recipes was put together to benefit the US Ski Team.
It's practical for some good and simple reasons. The looseleaf design means it stays open on any page without support. Recipes are simple and good, with a bare minimum of prepackaged ingredients, and all are printed on one or facing pages.
TMore cookbooks will be reviewed next week.m