Our next door neighbor Howie Nelson dropped by last month with a gift, as if his gift to us as our loyal, caring neighbor wasn't gift enough. The gift, he explained, belonged to his late mother and he wanted us to have it because my wife and I are book people.

It was a beautiful embossed 1879 edition of "Milton's Poetical Works" in perfect condition. Talk about serendipity! Howie had no idea that I spent a goodly portion of my career teaching the work of poet John Milton. And this third volume included in it what is perhaps my favorite Milton poem, "Lycidas," the poet's elegy on the death of his college classmate, Edward King. ("For Lycidas is dead, dead ere his prime, / Young Lycidas, and hath not left his peer.")

Howie also didn't know that I have a special glass-doored bookcase for books I treasure most and keep them segregated from the hundreds of books in our personal library.

Behind glass are about 40 hardcovers like my great-grandpa Wood's 1922 Burt Publishing's edition of "Vandermark's Folly," by Herbert Quick, a gift from his granddaughter Elsie. Or Elsie's copy of Zona Gale's "Miss Lulu Bett," given to her on Christmas 1920 by her law partner, Wisconsin governor and later senator, John James Blaine.

Also there's my grandad's Scribner's 1908 edition of John Fox's "The Trail of the Lonesome Pine." And his 1909 edition of G.A. Henty's "For Name and Fame." And his brother Jim's "Progressive Practical Arithmetic, by Daniel W. Fish, published in 1879.

Plus my father's 1936 Scribner's large collection of the novels of Zane Grey and my mother's beautifully bound Grosset and Dunlap's edition of "Rebecca Sunnybrook Farm."

Most of these obscure books are by authors who are long forgotten, but Howie's gift is by no means forgotten and the elegant leather binding has weathered the years beautifully since it was published in Covent Garden,London, in 1878.

So I'll no doubt refer from time to time to Howie's mother's book when I want to know something about Milton's"Samson Agonistes" or "Il Penseroso."

One other book I occasionally refer to when I can't figure out what to prepare for supper is Fanny Farmer's Boston Cooking-School Cookbook, first published by Little, Brown in 1896. This tattered old tome belonged to Great Uncle Jim's wife, Olive Tull Wood, who famously answered the question asked by our town doctor's young wife, who already had four children, how Olive managed to avoid ever having babies:

"I take two aspirins before bed and nothing after."

Poor Uncle Jim! Olive probably made up for her frigidity in the bedroom with her derring-do in the kitchen, if the Boston cookbook is any indication.

Olive also scandalized her in-laws because she was quite a hand at formal dinners and served something called cocktails to both sexes AT THE SAME TIME!

My favorite section of Olive's book comes at the end after the recipes and before the advertisements for Baker's chocolate and Lord's Salt Codfish.

It's the notorious suggested dinner menus. Here's one for "Full Course Dinners":

First course: Little Neck Clams with brown bread sandwiches

Second course: Clear soup with bread sticks. Cream soup served with croutons, radishes. Salted almonds may be passed after the soup.

Third course: Risoles, the filling to be of light meat.

Fourth course: Fish, baked, boiled, or fried. Cole Slaw, dressed cucumbers. Potatoes.

Fifth course: Roast saddle of venison or mutton, spring lamb or beef, potatoes and one other vegetable.

Sixth course: Entree made of light meat or fish.

Seventh course: A vegetable, like mushrooms or artichokes, but not served with a white sauce.

Eighth course: Punch or Cheese

Ninth course: Wild game with lettuce or celery.

Tenth course: A cold dessert.

Eleventh course: Fancy cakes. Bonbons are passed after this course.

Twelfth course: Crackers, cheese, black coffee. After coffee, pass pony of brandy to men, sweet liqueur for women, then crème de menthe for all.

P.S. Mary Wood, Ollie's mother-in-law, was fond of saying "Hunger is the best sauce."