Gifts in good taste. HOLIDAY COOKBOOKS

More and more of today's cookbooks are made for reading as well as cooking. With essays and anecdotes and food customs relating to social history and various cultures, a cookbook can be fascinating as well as informative. And because there is such a tremendous variety of food subjects, it's easy to choose one to appeal to a special friend for a holiday gift. This year those large, luxurious, colorful $50 cookbooks are in the decline, and there is a new kind of attractive cookbook with good art and clear instructions at more sensible prices - many under $10. There are plenty of the in-between price range, too, but after all, how many cookbooks can one coffee table hold?

Here are some of this year's new crop:

Craig Claiborne's Southern Cooking (Times Books, $19.95). As food editor of the New York Times and the author of many cookbooks, Craig Claiborne has had a tremendous influence on American cooking over the last 30 years. Born and raised in Mississippi, this is the first time he has written so completely about his home region.

His love of the South and its food comes through on every page, as when he tells of his delight in returning to Mississippi for a platter of fried chicken, field peas, collard greens, fresh corn, and pecan pie.

But mostly the book is a collection of the kind of recipes Mr. Claiborne has included in books over the years. And over the years, his recipes have always worked. Included are his mother's recipe for Orange Cake and for Chicken Spaghetti, as well as a recipe for Chicken `a la King. He says, ``It would be inconceivable to print a Southern cookbook without it.''

The L.L.Bean Book of New New England Cookery, by Judith and Evan Jones (Random House, $22.50). The Joneses have spent the last three years touring the six New England states, collecting and tasting dishes in homes as well as restaurants and small food companies, in order to find out how New Englanders are cooking these days.

They discovered older, classic dishes prepared in lighter versions with new emphasis on different seasonings and garnishes. There is also a greater variety of ethnic cooking styles coming to the forefront, such as French-Canadian recipes and a sauerkraut formula that goes back to the German immigrants who came to Waldoboro, Maine, in 1748. There's information on everything from growing herbs to smoking meats, as well as some of the lore and history of foods like scrod, fiddleheads, berry buckles, and slumps. These two eminent and respected food authorities have done equal justice to the new and the traditional foods of New England, and the 800 recipes make a priceless collection.

The Bread Book, by Audrey Ellison (London: Apple Press, $12.50). Here are recipes for a wealth of new and exciting health breads such as Herb Bread, Tofu Bread, and Yoghurt Bread. There are also recipes for the basic white and brown bread, as well as traditional favorites like Rye Bread, Sourdough, and Coffee Bread.

Ethnic breads such as Pita, Chapatis, Parathas, and Naan are also included in this easy-to-follow cookbook by this distinguished English food writer and nutritionist. There are plenty of tips and hints, and great ideas for making breads in contrasting colors and decorative shapes.

American Country Kitchen, by Mary Emmerling (Clarkson Potter/Crown, $35). The rule at this author's summer country house is ``Help yourself,'' and it seems the ideal way to relax on the weekend. At her Saturday breakfasts there's time to read the newspaper while having fresh fruit and croissants; city dinners are short and sweet.

Beautifully photographed by Michael Skott, the book takes readers on a meandering tour of the United States as the four seasons of the year unfold. Starting with early spring in Mississippi, we visit Maine in the summertime, Texas in September, then on to Kansas for Christmas and California in January. The recipes, presented menu-style, are down to earth - and imaginative.

Reading Between the Recipes, by Leslie Land (Yankee Books, $15.95), is a collection of food essays and ideas on New England food from the author's syndicated columns. How close this is to old-fashioned food of the area is debatable, but as a New Englander I find it very appealing. Land's personal opinions reflect her crusade to use only the freshest and best of foods. She shows a sense of humor in titles such as ``The Salmon in the Bathtub,'' ``Hating Rutabagas,'' and ``Getting the Most from Your Lobster.'' There is sound cooking advice, too - the result of Land's experience as cook in Berkeley, Calif. - plus cooking on the coast of Maine, where she has lived for the last 10 years.

Blue Ribbon Winners: America's Best State Fair Recipes, by Catherine Hanley (HP Books, $18.95 hard-cover, $9.95 paper). The popcorn, peanuts, and cotton-candy atmosphere is included in this winning selection of authentic recipes from state fair winners coast to coast. There are the mouth-watering jams and jellies, breads, cookies, pies, and more.

Phyllis Hanes is the Monitor's food editor.

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