Appalachian Fall: Apple Butter Time

I wrote about a fall activity my family did every year, making lard. When I wrote that, I intended to talk about the second and equally cherished tradition that happens every fall. The more I wrote about lard though, I realized each deserved it's own time to shine. Last weekend, my family underwent the arduous, time consuming and delicious task of making Apple Butter. I wasn't there for it and it was tough. I got to see plenty of pictures and live video and that helped, but that isn't the same.

I love making apple butter as much as I do rendering lard. The Jenkins family takes great pride in it. When Mammaw and Pappaw got married, she went to the store and bought a jar of Apple Butter. Pap took a taste and said "Awww, that ain't Apple Butter" and told Mam to try what they made. After one taste she was hooked. She would always tell us with the shake of her head and a half hearted flick of her wrist "That store bought stuff is just apple sauce with a little cinammon in it". We are so proud of our Apple Butter that I did my 1st grade "show and tell" presentation on it. Apple Butter, in some aspects, is way more fun then rendering lard. When we make Apple Butter there tends to be a much larger crowd. That means more fun, laughter, food and most importantly helpers! Don't let the fun fool you. Making Apple Butter is hard work.

Just like rendering lard, the process starts days before. We always go to a local orchard called Fuhrman's Orchard outside of Minford, OH. It may seem trivial, but selecting the right apple is very important. You want an apple that isn't too tart or too sweet. It has to be the correct balance of firm but soft enough that when it cooks you don't have large lumps of under cooked apples. Through a little research and tinkering, the apple we've settled on are called "Rome Beauty". They are an excellent apple and create a very smooth and creamy Apple Butter.

We pick up our apples a week ahead of time and spend about 2 days peeling and dicing them in preparation. The process of peeling apples got exponentially easier whenever we bought our first mechanical apple peeler. It peels, cores and dices the apple with the simple crank of a handle. Before my aunt bought one, we would spend 3-4 days doing all of this by hand. I don't know if you have ever peeled 6 BUSHELS of apples by hand but it isn't exactly what I'd call fun. As you peel them your hands get covered in apple juice and by the end of the evening everything is covered in the stickiest mess you can imagine. We always put down newspapers to catch as much as possible, but the floor ended up being as sticky as a mouse trap. The evening isn't finished until all the peels and cores were hauled out and our apples were in every pot we owned, covered with dish towels.

The next step in prep work is the wood. Make sure you have dry, seasoned hardwood for this and lots of it. The Apple Butter process requires much more heat than when you are rendering lard. You start the fire slow, just like with lard, but as the apples begin to cook you need to keep a fair and constant amount of heat under the kettle. My family found this out the hard way this year. They didn't prepare enough good firewood and were still stirring at one in the morning! I can only imagine Mammaw and Pappaw were shaking their heads in Heaven.

Making Apple Butter, in a copper kettle, over an open fire is always a long process. Whenever me and pappaw were in charge of things, our morning started no later than 6 a.m. The 8 a.m. start time this year would have been completely unacceptable. Me and pap would have packed it in and called it a day. In the crisp morning Autumn air we would make sure our kettle and stirring stick was cleaned up. Caring for the Apple Butter kettle is a little different than the lard kettle. Instead of cast iron, the Apple Butter kettle is lined with a thin layer of copper. The copper helps preserve the natural flavors of the apple and doesn't add unwanted flavors during the cooking process. We are currently on our second copper kettle. I'm not exactly sure how old the first one was but I can tell you it was old. It developed a microcrack and had to be replaced. My aunt found a new one in Virginia and took Pappaw and mom with her to pick it up some years ago.

Anyway, the copper kettle is cleaned immediately after use and immediately before use. Copper will oxidize and get a green tint after time. To remove this and clean the kettle we use a mixture of salt and vinegar. It will make the inside of the kettle shine like a new copper penny. After a quick rinse with plain water, the kettle is ready. Once the apples are poured into the kettle, we add water. This helps prevent scorching and a majority of the water evaporates. At this point, this is where all of that extra company (i.e. "stirrers" as we call them) come in handy. Our stirring apparatus is a large wooden paddle with numerous holes drilled into it. The head of the paddle is attached to a 5 or 6ft wooden handle. It's wood for many of the same reasons that the kettle is copper, to prevent introducing bad flavors.

The apples have to be constantly stirred from minute one. This means that whoever is holding the stirring stick is getting the full body workout. The person that draws the short straw and goes first gets it the worst. Stirring uncooked apples is not fun. There isn't a whole lot to compare it to, maybe stirring concrete by hand but even that isn't fair. The worst part was always trying to keep every apple slice in the kettle. If you dropped one square of apple, Pappaw would wince and use his famous passive aggressive scolding. At first, everyone is chipper and eager to get their hands on the paddle. But as the day wears on, you see more and more creative ways to deal with the monotonous and laborious task. My personal favorite is the behind the back hold. Difficult to master, spectacular to watch and super effective at making someone else jump and take the paddle out of your hands.

After about 6 or 8 hours of stirring, the Apple Butter really starts to look good. It is getting a deeper color and when you spoon it out of the kettle onto a plate it is lumping up and getting the stiffer consistency you want. This is the point when you add your sugar, all 50 lbs of it, and all that progress you made disappears. I can't explain what happens, but the sugar absolutely makes the contents of the kettle feel like water and you have another 6 hours of stirring ahead of you. You know it is going to happen, but every year a little piece of you thinks "This year is going to be a lot faster" and the sugar crushes that piece into dust. At this point keeping a good fire under the kettle is important. You want the Apple Butter to be bubbling kind of like a witches cauldron.

Nothing very exciting happens for a little while. But around 8 or 9 pm it is time to scoop out some more Apple Butter onto a plate. It has to be stiff enough to pile up on itself a little bit before it is ready to jar. Once it hits that point another flurry of activity begins. We yank the fire out from under the kettle (it's too heavy to move the kettle. This is easier). The final ingredient, 6 ounces of cinnamon is mixed in, and we begin dipping our Apple Butter into glass jars as quickly as possible. We have formed an assembly line like effectiveness to complete this last part. Two people use coffee cups to dip out Apple Butter into our jars and pass them to the next person. That person makes sure the jars are clean and puts a flat on the top of the jar with the ring. The ring is hand tightened and handed to the next person who puts them on an empty table. By the end, we have between 70-90 jars of Apple Butter (a mixture of jelly jars, pints and quarts). The last thing you wait for is the distinct "pop" of the flat that signals it is properly sealed. That satisfying sound is the signal that our work is done.

Just like that, in the darkness of night, the glorious day of Apple Butter is complete. It is as much of an event as it is tradition. Making Apple Butter is a throwback to the days of our ancestors. Large groups of people getting together and helping one another. Making food for everyone, playing music and just being a community. My mom and aunts have done an exceptional job of recreating that atmosphere from 100 years ago. This year they had between 60-80 people there to help. They set up large canopies and cooked beef stew over an open fire while another group fried fish. There were people playing guitar and singing church songs. Best of all, all of the children got to spend time together playing on the hill in the woods. It had to have been fun. It is encouraging that so many people are interested in doing this kind of stuff. Obviously there are fall festivals that people go to and pass by the process, but not many have the necessary tools to do what we do on such a large scale.

One quick story to end this with. Around 1990, my aunt had the idea to call a local newspaper and see if they wanted to come out and document us making Apple Butter. Pappaw's sister, Della, scoffed at the notion. "I don't even know why you're calling them. You know they ain't gonna come out and take no pictures of us." Della "suffered" from chronic back pain and had not stirred Apple Butter all day. She was there for moral support I reckon. But my aunt was undeterred and within a half an hour, the reporter was there. Low and behold, Della hopped off the couch and was cured of her back pain. As a matter of fact, she felt good enough to stir a little, just in time for pictures. Just to be sure the paper got it right, she told the reporter "My name is Della Mitchell. Thats D-E-L-L-A". Apple Butter; It cures the body and the soul.

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