Simple Pleasures

A mother’s legacy, expressed through a beloved family recipe

It’s all about my mother. And now it’s also about our grandchildren.

Every August, for as long as I can remember, my mother, Emily Campbell Brown, made a huge vat of applesauce. She started with maybe two bushels of apples. You had to leave the skins on the apples when you cooked them, because that’s what gave our applesauce that special reddish autumn color.

My oldest brother, Bob, a very good cook, has continued my mother’s applesauce-making tradition for years. Only recently did Bob and my wife, Connie, convince me to take it up.

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Truth be told, I can’t cook much of anything. Connie mostly cooks and I mostly clean up. Except in the morning, when I make the French-pressed coffee and toast and prepare the fruit for my beautiful wife’s breakfast. And in August, she lets me make toasted tomato-spinach sandwiches from the Big Boy tomatoes that I grow in our garden. That—and oatmeal and popcorn—etch the contours of my culinary skills.

Making applesauce is really pretty easy. I don’t use a written recipe. Just core the Paula Red apples with my nifty little coring thing, put the slices in a fairly large pot, and don’t—repeat don’t—take the skins off. Add 3 or 4 cups of water, and maybe ⅓ cup of raw cane sugar, and cook it on high heat until the skins separate or the apples reach a kind of mushy quality.

Turn the heat off and let the mixture sit for a while. Then hand crank, and hand crank, the applesauce maker. Unless you want to spend most of the day making 30 or 40 pints of applesauce, it might be best to have two pots going at once.

I make a separate special Christmas batch by scooping up a couple handfuls of cranberries—nothing precise in this kitchen, sorry—and toss them in the pot with the 15 or so cooking apples. I add a bit more sugar because of the tartness of the cranberries, and the Paula Red 11-month-a-year treat turns into another way to celebrate Yuletide meals with an almost Santa Claus red. I exaggerate. A bit.

We love to serve our five grandchildren the applesauce in our little St. Luke’s Lutheran serving dishes that we bought a few years ago from my boyhood church in Mansfield. It reminds me of home and family in the 1960s.

None of this is really about the applesauce. It’s more about family memories of a time when my daughters, Emily and Elizabeth, hovered around their grandmother. It’s about what she did for them, and what they meant to her.

As I was raising my daughters, it was important that we regularly spent time with my parents, who still lived in my childhood home in Mansfield. My mother taught them so much. They watched her laugh and bake and teach and love, and helped her make her red applesauce.

Now Connie and I are building our own traditions with our grandchildren: Clayton, Leo, Jackie, Carolyn, and Milo. We bake, garden, color Easter eggs, visit Cleveland’s aquarium, go to the World Series . . . well, the latter in Cleveland is a little harder to turn into an annual outing. Traditions give our family, perhaps all families, something to anticipate, to share, to celebrate.

Author Margaret Mead wrote that wisdom and knowledge are passed from grandparent to grandchild. I remember the joy that Emily and Elizabeth brought to their grandmother. And, a decade after my mother’s death, I see in 36-year-old Emily and 33-year-old Elizabeth an uncommon wisdom and deep knowledge about life that their grandmother imparted to them.

Perhaps next summer, we’ll assemble all our grandchildren—from Columbus and Providence and St. Croix—to help make the applesauce. Or at least create havoc in the kitchen, which is part of the fun.

So now the tradition is set. Every August I will make the applesauce. And honor my mother. And teach our grandchildren something about wisdom and knowledge. And don’t forget to keep the skins on.

The magic of applesauce-making transcends generations. U.S. Senator Sherrod Brown shares the family tradition with his grandchildren when they visit.