So I've been reading Elizabeth David's French Provincial Cuisine, which I love, and thinking for a while about a certain sort of cookbook, and I thought I might throw out some ideas I had and get some suggestions about other cookbooks.
There's a certain type of cookbook that, I think, is very special. What we expect from a normal good cookbook is, perhaps, a collection of recipes that work out quite well on a first try, turn out something quite tasty and even complicated and nuanced and harmonized, perhaps with a spot of history or local color.
There are a few books that provide something more - something like a general, perhaps instinctual, understanding of how a particular cuisine works. After using a regular good cookbook, I feel like I could recreate, from memory, some of my favorite recipes from that cookbook. After using this special sort of cookbook for a while, I feel like I can make up stuff in the cuisine. (And sometimes I do and it works.)
Examples: take my favorite two Provencal cookbooks. One is Patricia Wells' Cooking At Home in Provence. I love each of the recipes I've tried - it is perhaps the most spot-on cookbook - but I cannot tease any insight out of them. Perhaps they're a little too complicated, a little too perfectly tuned in all their little moving bits. The other is Richard Olney's Provence the Beautiful - which is not explicitly a step-by-step guide through the thinking behind the cuisine, but somehow, through cooking a lot of the recipes, I feel like I sort of get it. Perhaps because the recipes are significantly more elemental - that you see the same technique, say a gratin with breadcrumbs - executed on four different vegetables, and see how the technique is modified slightly for each vegetable, and, in the repitition and variation, get a glimpse of something like the basic thought behind the gratin and its interaction with a particular vegetable.
More examples: The Art of Chinese Cuisine, by Lin and Lin, a.k.a. Chinese Gastronomy, which explicitly walks the reader through the different aspects of Chinese cuisine thinking - texture control, crispness control, stewing, etc. etc. John Thorne's Serious Pig, and its dissection of cajun/creole cuisine. (John Thorne may be the most flexible at doing this sort of heart-finding, for lots of dishes from lots of cuisines.) Tsuji's Simple Art of Japanese Cooking.
Hazan's Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking also works that way, for presenting all the basic dishes, it feels like, in as simplest form as possible. I thought for a while that that was why it could get me to improvise within the cuisine - sheer broadness - but I have Claudia Roden's New Book of Middle Eastern Cookery, which is as broad and simple, but from which I have learned nothing general. Although it may just be because the cuisine is too alien.
Or perhaps it's because the Roden is a collection of recipes from lots of different cultures, and the Hazan looks at one vaguely close-knit culture and then filters it all through one sensibility. Is that true? I don't know enough to know how Hazan-ized those recipes are. But it suggests, maybe, why, say, Chez Panisse Vegetables is special in the way I've been getting at, even though it isn't any particular recognized ethnic cuisine - it shows how one particular food sensibility, simply and carefully, interacts with lots of ingredients. Maybe unity has something to do with it - Naples At Table is such a heart-of-cuisine book, perhaps because all the stuff is so close. But there are plenty of Italian regional cuisine books from which I've gotten no such education.
Maybe it has something to do with how an author explains how the dish is supposed to be, how it's supposed to *feel*, and how the technique gets it there. That might be why the Julia Child books don't have this effect - there's plenty of technique description, but little about what the end-result is supposed to be like, except that it's nice and good. But, then again, the Olney is pretty spare on such details, and it works for me.
I don't know. Sorry for rambling. It's late.
Anyway - I'm looking for more such books. I don't have such books for - Vietnamese, Thai, Mexican, Spanish, Moroccan, a thousand other things. Any suggestions?