By Sherrie Norris
I was gathering my apples and all the other ingredients needed to make Brenda Gragg’s apple pie filling at about the same time I learned she was nearing life’s end earlier this week. I put the project on hold and decided, instead, to spend a few moments with the Gragg family as they lovingly stood vigil by her bedside. They had been “called in” as so often happens when medical professionals deem it time for the last goodbyes, the final hugs, the last possible declarations of love and devotion — and the release, as painful as it is.
The Graggs never failed their loved one, neither during her journey nor as she slipped peacefully from this earth on Tuesday into what they know in their hearts to be her eternal resting place in heaven. There’s just some things you know to be true. Brenda Gragg knew. Her family knew — and all of us who knew her knew.
Yes, I know this is a cooking column, and yes, it’s often served as a place to honor special people, whether as a living tribute or as a memorial.
Brenda Gragg deserves her place in my column. I am saddened by her departure today as I write these words.
Brenda was a good friend to many of us. She was a good cook, as those Gragg girls (and some of the boys!) are known to be. I have often sat down to a table filled with goods from the Gragg family kitchens. And, I have, soon afterward, left the table, groaning in blissful misery — simply because enough is never enough of their culinary delights.
Whether it’s the divine prize-winning skillet apple pies, the three-layered cakes baked and decorated to perfection from the sisters-in-law, the dinner rolls from the beloved family matriarch that we’ve all tried to imitate, or the apple butter and/or apple pie filling for which Brenda was known, it’s all worthy of acclaim.
A skilled woman — aside from the kitchen — Brenda spent most of her adult lifetime behind a steaming industrial presser (the big iron) at Trailway Cleaners in Boone, making sure that our clothes were cleaned, steamed and creased to perfection. My husband hasn’t worn a shirt or a pair of pants comparable to those that came out of Trailway since “progress” claimed the family business. When that building crumbled to the ground to make room for the four lane on East King Street, it didn’t just take cement blocks, but it took away a big part of a family’s livelihood.
Brenda had given it all she had for decades. And she missed it terribly. She was lost without it, she told me one day, even years later, as she sat forlorn, still in obvious grief, waiting on her husband, Johnny, at Harris Teeter, where he had gone to work greeting customers, bringing smiles to many faces, gathering the carts, sweeping the floors and offering to help all who entered.
Brenda was a quiet woman, never seeking the spotlight, but always offering a sweet smile and kind words, even in her suffering. She was a “good woman,” as my husband said, one who loved her family, friends — and yes, Jesus.
Sometimes people like Brenda pass through this world without a lot of fanfare; some might not have noticed, in recent years, the effort it took for her to walk from the parking lot to the bench at the grocery store, or from the car to her favorite corner in the back of the church. We might not have always realized that her pain was real, but we will realize her absence in those places the next time we visit.
In the meantime, I plan to complete my annual double “run” of apple pie filling to grace my shelves for the winter. One in memory of Brenda, the other in memory of another dear friend, mentor and unsung hero, Martha Jean Greene, who also impacted my world and shared her recipes for apple pie filling with me. Funny how both those recipes ended up together in my cookbook several years ago, slightly different, but basically the same. Just like those precious ladies who have gone on before us. The recipes, as do the memories they create, weigh heavy on my mind and heart today.
Apple Pie Filling
A recipe of Brenda Gragg’s mother, Carrie Jones, which Brenda shared with me and many others
Enough apples to fill 7 quart jars
7 cups sugar
1 cup cornstarch
½ cup margarine
2 tsp. powdered cinnamon
½ tsp. nutmeg
¼ tsp. allspice
8 cups water
Pack sliced or diced apples in jars. Bring all other ingredients to a boil and pour over apples. Boil filled jars 20 minutes in hot water bath to seal. Also good to use with peaches.
Submitted by Brenda Gragg/Mount Vernon Cookbook, 1991
2 cups raw diced potatoes
2 cups raw hamburger
1 cup finely chopped green pepper
2 cups chopped celery
2 cups canned tomatoes
1 cup raw sliced onion
Salt and pepper to taste
Place ingredients in baking dish in order given. Sprinkle each layer with salt and pepper. Bake at 375 for 1½ hours.
Submitted by Brenda Gragg/Mount Vernon Cookbook, 1991
¾ cup plain flour
1 tsp. baking powder
½ tsp. salt
1 pkg. instant vanilla pudding mix
3 Tbsp. soft butter or margarine
½ cup milk
1 (15 0z.) can peaches, drained (reserve juice)
1 (8 oz.) pkg. cream cheese, softened
½ cup plus 1 Tbsp. sugar
½ tsp. cinnamon
Blend together flour, baking powder, salt, pudding mix, soft butter, egg and milk. Beat 2 minutes. Put in buttered deep dish. Top with drained and diced peaches. Blend cream cheese, ½ cup sugar and 3 Tbsp. peach juice; beat for 2 minutes. Pour on top of peaches. Sprinkle with 1 Tbsp. sugar mixed with cinnamon. Bake in a 350-degree oven for 30-35 minutes or until done.