ESTO- AN EMAIL ARRIVED offering a treasure. "If you did not get a copy of the Two Toe Tom Cookbook, prepared in the early days of that famous celebration, I will tell you that we have located one and it is a classic."


The message was from Perry Wells, the longtime county judge in neighboring Washington County. Judge Wells, now 90, has led a long and distinguished life and has many outstanding qualities to recommend him — none more important than his wife, Hester Lee Lucas Wells, who he referred to as "my Esto girl," since she grew up near Ten Mile Creek and went to the Esto School. I looked up to her father, Herbert Lucas — a true gentleman — when we both worked at Bunk Johnson’s gas station down at Holland Crossroads. Perhaps because of that, I have always felt a little bit kin to Perry and Hester.


Of the cookbook, he wrote that it has "many contributions of some of Esto’s finest ladies’ noted cooking skills." It was one of many local cookbooks Hester had collected. Since her death last year, Perry has gradually been letting go of some of her treasures, including her cookbook collection. The Two Toe Tom cookbook, he said, "is yet unspoken for."


I couldn’t get a crisp new $20 bill — the asking price — in the mail fast enough to his address on Judge Perry Wells Highway in Chipley. In due time, a package arrived. Inside was a pristine copy of the cookbook, published as part of the festivities surrounding the very first Two Toed Tom Festival back in 1987, along with a note from Perry:


"I will not deface the cookbook with an autograph, thus keeping it in its purest form," he wrote. "I know you will find much interesting reading — and the names of so many contributors make it even more special. Hester would be proud to know the book is in your hands. She always spoke kindly of Cottontop Reynolds as the husband of your mother and the father of the son she described as "everybody’s baby in Esto."


The cookbook was, as Perry promised, a treasure. There was Lynette Crutchfield’s recipe for Squash Relish, her daughter Brenda Sasser’s recipe for Shortnin’ Bread, and her sister Martha Sue Register’s recipe for Cabbage Soup. There was Mrs. Walter (Gladys) Dixon’s recipe for Tater Gravy, and Charlene Godwin’s recipes for Chuck Roast — "so easy," it said — and Sweet Potato Casserole, Peach Pie and Buttermilk Pie.


It was like calling the roll of the ladies in Esto. I’d eaten at many of their tables, and had nearly everyone’s cooking at a dinner on the grounds at the Baptist church or some other community event.


I doubt Sue Worthy Champion ever actually cooked Gator Tail ‘n Taters. "Boil gator tail in large pot with black pepper, salt and red pepper until tender," the recipe said. But it seemed appropriate in a cookbook dedicated to a legendary alligator said to live in Old Sand Hammock.


By far the biggest section was Cakes, Cookies & Desserts. Esto ladies baked great cakes. There was Louise McGowan’s recipe for Peanut Cake, her niece Dorothy Nell Miller’s recipe for Chocolate Pound Cake and Mary Nell Joiner’s recipes for Lemon Cheese Cake, Moist Coconut Cake and Lane Cake, a special holiday favorite. Mary Nell had a business baking cakes for other people for quite a few years, although Annie Laura Kidd always sniffed, "She uses cake mix," a cardinal sin. Sure enough, her recipe for Caramel Peanut Butter Cake noted: "You may use a yellow cake mix."


And then, on page 113, I ran into a surprise: my mother’s Chocolate Cake. Mother had died earlier that year, before the cookbook project began. But she was a great cook, and she was known for her 12-layer chocolate cake. Somebody must have decided it should be included. I’ll never make it, but I’m glad it’s in the book.


That $20 I sent Judge Perry Wells was some of the best money I’ve ever spent.