CLEARWATER — She'd show off her Southern roots by making ham hock and beans with cornbread.
If you ever spent time at her dinner table, chances are you gobbled down her creation called "Peachy Chicken.''
Her son recalls how she'd send him back to college armed with tins full of chocolate chip cookies to share with his roommates.
Betty Jo Wheeler loved to cook, but along with spending time in her Clearwater kitchen, she had another passion — collecting cookbooks. When she died in 2010 at the age of 83, she left behind 3,000 cookbooks.
Today and Saturday, the Clearwater Library Foundation will hold its "Colossal Cookbook Sale,'' a fundraiser built around Wheeler's massive collection, which is on sale at the Clearwater Main Library. Her son, Dr. William Wheeler, a surgeon in Idaho, donated the books to the Clearwater library system this year.
At first, William Wheeler put his mother's books in storage after her death on May 30, 2010.
A year ago, he contacted the Library Foundation. He explained that it had been about a year since his mother passed away, and he was heading back to Florida to finish settling her estate.
In a letter, he explained how much his mother had cherished the cookbooks. He also acknowledged that with 3,000 books — 94 boxes of books — his mother had "left quite a challenging legacy.''
Library Foundation director Judy Melges got the letter. Challenging or not, she was thrilled with the offer.
"I've learned through working with the Friends of the Clearwater Library bookstore that people are always interested in cookbooks," she said. "At sales, they're always the top-sellers.''
The collection includes books dating to the early years of Betty Jo's marriage to James Wheeler, whom she met at a USO dance at the Key West Naval Base in 1947. Upon his retirement in 1978, the couple returned to Clearwater, where Betty Jo grew up.
Titles range from Complete Book of Home Canning by Demetria M. Taylor, written in 1943, to The Working Wives (Salaried or Otherwise) Cook Book by Theodora Zavin and Freda Stuart written in 1963, to several volumes of recipes compiled from the Galloping Gourmet, the 1970s hit TV show with Graham Kerr.
Dozens of cookbooks from different Christian women's groups, as well as titles like The Apostles Cookbook and Bless this Food: the Anita Bryant Family Cookbook give a nod to Betty Jo's commitment to her Baptist faith. And books like The Aloha China Cookbook by Tutis Chan and La Cuisine de France by Mapie, the Countess de Toulouse-Lautrec, show that she spent time traveling abroad.
"As we went through the books, it was like putting the puzzle of her life together,'' said Teri Clennan, volunteer coordinator for the Library Foundation. She and a team of seven helpers have spent the last several months sorting the books and cataloging the collection on spreadsheets.
"There were times when we'd find a note from someone who had given her the cookbook as a gift," Clennan said. "It went from just cataloging books to studying someone's life. It was amazing.''
These days, busy families can make a dash to their personal computer and Google a recipe for dinner. In contrast, when he was a child, William would watch his mother take a cookbook from the shelf and slowly turn the pages, studying the different recipes.
The collection is a nod to a different, slower time, he said. "I think the way times have changed would make my mother kind of sad,'' he said. "I think the collection shows how much pleasure can come from reading cookbooks.''
Did his mother's cookbook collection ever grow too cumbersome for a military family that was required to move every few years?
William doesn't recall the cookbooks being a problem. His mother didn't really start collecting them in large numbers until his father brought her back to Clearwater. "Until then, mom survived with about 100 or 200 cookbooks,'' he said jokingly.
Her friend, Betty Gregson of Clearwater, remembered watching the collection grow.
The women met more than 30 years ago at Calvary Baptist Church in downtown Clearwater.
"People knew how she loved cookbooks, and often they'd pass one on to her,'' said Gregson, 84. "Whenever she got a new one, she'd sit in her favorite chair and read it, cover to cover.
"She had them in the family room, the bedroom — they were all over. I remember she sold her piano and put two bookcases in its place just for the cookbooks.''
The Colossal Cookbook Sale will be from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. today and 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Saturday at the Main Library, 100 N Osceola Ave. in downtown.
Along with Betty Jo's collection of cookbooks, the program will include two special guests. Terry Fortner, co-author of Caladesi Cookbook: Recipes from a Florida Lifetime, will speak at 1 p.m. today, and Christine Clemens, a personal chef and caterer who attended the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., will speak at 1 p.m. Saturday.
Piper Castillo can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 445-4163. To write a letter to the editor, go to tampabay.com/letters.