Matthew, thank you for this one. I grew up with a mother who was, basically, a non-cook, and most everything I have learned has been through my own research and experience.
I, too, don't like recipes, except as a starting point. I'll come up with an idea, and then will look for a similar recipe in order to get things like approximate cooking times, and so on. I'm good at this.
However, I tend to stick with flavor combinations I know are safe, and will be the first to admit that I am a bit overly-conservative in this regard. Things like salt, garlic, and pepper I am completely comfortable with, and I think many would admit that if they had to choose only three seasonings, instead of three cookbooks, these would be the three. In fact, I shall start a thread asking this very question, once I get done with this post.
However, when I watch shows like Iron Chef, and watch these people put this, that, and this, and that, and the other thing in a dish because "all of them compliment the flavor of the main ingredient," I am in awe. I think "The Flavor Bible" might be able to teach me how to use seasonings a little better.
I would, for example, have thought that in your crockpot chicken dish in another thread, the rosemary wouldn't blend at all well with the cream, especially if it is being cooked all day. because rosemary is so resinous and acidic. I usually use rosemary as an aromatic with a roast, or I only add it at the very last to a simmering pot. I never would have thought of adding it to a pot of cream that was simmering all day. But, as you have first-hand experience with this, you would know better than I.
Thanks again for pointing me in the direction of this apparently wonderful book. I shall pick it up post-haste, and no doubt learn a lot from it.
As far as the original question regarding cookbooks goes, I have a very difficult time choosing only three. It's like "Ask me today, and I will tell you one thing. Ask me a week from now, and I will tell you another."
However, for now, the first IS a recipe book, but I choose it because it teaches how to do everything from soufflé to rodent stew. This is, of course, "The Joy Of Cooking." And, as others have said, mine is from before they started getting rid of the fat.
The second would be "The Art of Mexican Cooking" by Diana Kennedy. She spent decades wandering about Mexico to learn this stuff, and this book is as much an instruction manual regarding technique, and an insight into Mexican culture, as it is a recipe book.
The third at this point, would be one of the books by Alton Brown. His books are almost all technique, with a few recipes thrown in, and as vilified as he is in some circles, his goals are similar to mine; to understand the science of cooking.