As an army major's wife in Yokohama, Japan, Louise Clift needed to feed her four boys from a hot plate on an end table in the living room. German Marrow Ball soup with dumplings, barley and vegetables became a staple. Only on Saturdays would they splurge on sweets. They had fun frying fresh doughnuts in the bottom of a double boiler while melting icing in the top half. With limited supplies Clift got creative. She covered cardboard with tin foil for cookie sheets and used an ice pick to poke holes in a mayonnaise jar lid for a lemon grater.
"I had to improvise to accomplish my role," Clift, 92, said. "When my husband was recovering from malaria in Tokyo, I learned the art of Chinese cooking from the Benedictine nuns of Peking."
While stationed in the Mojave Desert she practiced cake decorating and picked up more approaches to cooking in New Jersey, Arkansas and Tennessee. The Clifts returned to Florida in 1966 when Graydon retired from the military.
It became her chance to serve. A native of San Antonio and a registered nurse, she grew up during the depression with a vegetable garden and fruit trees. When she moved back as an adult, she earned an army of friends and supportive neighbors by spreading comfort to the sick with her homemade dishes and offering culinary contributions to local fundraisers.
Firefighter Ted Stephens recuperated from complications of rheumatoid arthritis while eating Clift's precious gems and pound cake for nearly five years.
"It was the only thing he wanted to eat," his wife, Anne, said. "He retired and is doing great now. I have to say that Louise is like the Rock of Gibraltar. She's our everything and her cooking is just inspirational."
Sue Davis has been Clift's hairdresser for 12 years. Her silent auctions attracted many more than regular salon customers, thanks to Clift's baked goods.
"Louise puts her heart into everything and at the same time is embarrassed by it," Davis said. "Her hummingbird cake brought $65."
Enter Connie Reynolds, who had the know-how to get Clift published. In November 2012, at her mother Pat Reynolds' funeral, Reynolds admits to craving a piece of Clift's pecan pie.
"That's when I knew I needed to honor my mother's friend by publishing her cookbook," said Reynolds, a 58 year-old psychotherapist. "We started compiling Louise's favorite recipes last September."
Reynolds found publisher Morris Cookbooks, chose a template and printed 300 copies. Together they launched Food by Louise Clift. They had a book signing at the St. Charles Inn Bed and Breakfast, owned by the Stephenses.
Clift's secret for her pastries is texture. She rarely uses a modern food processor or watches television cooking shows. She can't live without her KitchenAid mixer or her hand-cranked Mouli grater. She only fries with Crisco, always uses extra-large eggs and prefers butter over oleo.
One of her special ingredients is baking ammonia as a substitute for baking soda. A precooked teaspoon can be used as smelling salts. But along with nutmeg, sherry, rum and brandy, it frequently flavors her pastries.
Graydon, a veteran of the Battle of the Bulge and the Korean War, died during their 65th year of marriage in 2010 at 95. His portrait in dress Army uniform hangs in Louise's favorite room, the kitchen.
She deflects praise for her cookbook toward Reynolds. "I never toot my own horn," she said.
Reynolds insists, though, that while it's all fun for Clift, "the time for feedback for all her years of generosity has finally come."