Apple Butter


It happens every year, and still, it sneaks up on me.  Each September I watch my husband prepare, so it shouldn’t surprise me, but it always does.  I go out to the porch to water my geraniums and hear the crack and splinter of wood under axe.  The air is still and hot, not very conducive to splitting wood.  My awareness shifts, and  I know he’s down behind the garage, sweating  and stretching his muscles,  dividing  lengths of branch and limb into halves and quarters.   The pieces are piling up into a small mountain beside him.  That’s when I remember. It’s almost apple butter time.   I love the spicy thickness of it when spooned onto a hot buttered biscuit, but I dread making it.   It’s my husband’s family tradition, not mine, and it’s hard work.

In another week or so, I’ll overhear the telephone conversation Bruce has with his eighty-three year old father.  “I’m thinking the week of October twenty-third.  You got plans that weekend?—Ok, put it down and we’ll shoot for that.—No I got plenty wood.  You just make sure the stand is in good shape and get the kettle out and clean it up.  We don’t have to patch any holes in it do we? –Alright, We’ll call Ben and see if he can come home from school that weekend.  We need all the help we can get.”

Next, I’ll hear him scratching around in the attic, banging his head and cursing.  He’ll call me to the stairs that fold out of the ceiling and he’ll be bent over up there, feeding the long handled wooden stirring paddle down the steps to me.  Next will come the glass canning jars and rings stored in wooden apple boxes.  I’ll stack them in the hallway.   The upstairs is unbearable this time of year. There’s little ventilation, and the air is thick, but the temperature doesn’t seem to bother Bruce when he’s on a mission. He drips sweat, but smiles.

He’s already scoped out the apple orchards, anticipating the exact moment of perfect ripeness.  He has marked his internal calendar with the date for harvesting.   The weather should be cooler then, and with four of us working, gathering fifteen to twenty bushels of Stamen or Winesap  apples will only take most of an afternoon.  Of course, we’ll have to clean out the bed of the pick up truck before we leave so the wooden apple crates will slide in side by side until there’s no more room. After the bed is full, we stack them.  Four of us no longer fit in the cab of the truck, so we’ll have to leave room for Ryan on the back.  He’s the smallest.

Picking the apples is the fun part.  I can sneak away, pull out my camera, take photos of the knotty trees, their branches hanging low with rust colored fruit.  I catch Ryan in the act of throwing an apple at his brother’s back and Ben’s scowl when he turns.  Bruce laughs, half an apple in his hand, juice running off his chin. He wipes it with the sleeve of his shirt.   He admonishes, “Get back to work.  We’ll never get finished at this rate.”

In the week prior to the big day, peeling coring and slicing ensues.  The basement of my in-law’s house boasts an assembly line of apple preparation.  Wooden orchard crates filled with a combination of winesaps and stamen line the floor.  Hand crank peelers and corers are clamped to tables. I can close my eyes and hear the sounds,  the snap of apple skin breaking, the whir of the blade spiraling through the apple as juice runs, the plunk of cores landing in five gallon plastic buckets, the murmur of voices remembering generations of tradition passed down.

“My Mama used this same knife. It has a nice curve to the blade, perfect for the shape of an apple.  Her hands were small, like mine.”

“Your Granddaddy took the peelings and a little bit of cider vinegar and scrubbed the inside of the apple butter kettle with them every year.  He worked that mixture around until the inside of the kettle shined like a new penny.”

“We weren’t choosy about what kind of apples we used way back then.  We used what we could find and pick up under the trees.  No difference in taste as far as I can see.  That mix years ago might have even been a bit better than what we make today.”

“My hand is tired, can I go watch tv now?”

“Of course you can, this work is hard on a little fella.”

I want to join the little fella, my back and shoulders are tired, the apple skins have stained my hands and I’m sticky from my fingers to my elbows.  There are ten full boxes left.  What are we going to do with all this apple butter?   I’m content with one or two jars a season. Not Bruce, he’s content with no less than a farm table full of quart and pint jars.

 My mother-in-law forgoes the fancy machines for a sharp paring knife. She has a rhythm to her peeling and the wooden handle of the knife feels familiar to her hand.  Her peelings are skin thin and spiral into the bucket in one long piece.  These along with the cores, stems and seeds are treats for the cows.  

  Apples are sliced thin and the raw pieces are put in plastic bags in a cool corner of the room.  The night before we make the apple butter, they’ll be washed.  We will cook on Saturday.  By Friday night there are six or seven, thirty-gallon plastic bags of apples, waiting.

Apple butter making starts early.  The fire is built under the pot at four o’clock in the morning.  It’s dark and cold when we slip from between warm bed covers, put on clothes in layers and drive the three miles to my in-law’s farm.  The firewood is stacked on the trailer behind our pickup. The jars and metal rings, clean and shiny, are packed in boxes. New rubber ringed lids are the  only things we haven’t recycled. They are new.  A wash tub holds five pound sacks of sugar, tiny bottles of cinnamon and clove oil, a jug of apple cider, canning funnels, long handled wooden spoons, metal dippers and some clean dish towels.  Ryan, who’s been excited all week about the event, grumbles and mumbles as he drags himself out of the truck and into one of Grandma’s extra beds until after sunrise.

The men heft the forty gallon copper apple butter kettle into the cast iron stand, pour in the jug of cider, add one plastic bag of apples and build a fire under the kettle.  The apples must be stirred non-stop from beginning to end, otherwise they stick to the kettle and burn.

The wooden stir paddle is old, fashioned by hand out of pine with wooden pegs holding it together.  It’s been passed down through generations, repaired as necessary, and stored across the rafters in the attic for safe keeping between apple butter makings.   The handle is eight feet long, the paddle attached to its end at a ninety degree angle is two feet long, one inch thick.  It is a flat, bowling pin shaped piece of wood with holes drilled through to allow the apple butter passage.  The corners at the bottom of the paddle are rounded to conform to the sides of the kettle.  Stirring “twice around the outside and through the middle once” keeps the apple butter from sticking.   Some people drop three or four pennies into the pot.  Tradition says it keeps the butter from sticking, or brings good luck. 

Bruce’s Daddy doesn’t believe in using pennies.  “It scratches the copper finish on the pot,” he says.  “Besides, pennies are dirty.”

People come and go all day long, relatives, neighbors, and some townsfolk who’ve gotten wind of the event.  Even a few dogs drop by to see what’s going on.  They are apt to lie in a spot of sun, dozing.  Some of the older men do the same thing.  Visitors take turns stirring, along with members of the family, while others sit around on apple boxes or stumps and tell stories.  Everyone has a different recipe or way of making apple butter.  Each family adheres to its own set of rules and ingredients. 

The women spend the day keeping the stirrers fed.  No one comes in to eat at the kitchen table.  Food is set up outdoors, drinks and sweet tea are kept cold in coolers.  If the men really wanted to help prepare the food they could. There’s no rule, it’s just that men tend to stay as far away from the house and as close to the kettle as they can.  Men say they don’t gossip, but tractors, farmland and machinery carry secrets. Women know.

Bruce’s Daddy makes the decisions about when to add more apples as the others “cook down”, when to season the apple butter, and when it’s thick enough to pull the fire out.  It has to pass the spoon and plate test.  If it doesn’t run when you tilt the plate or spoon, it’s ready. Somewhere close to five o’clock in the evening, the apple butter is thick and dark enough to put in jars. 

It is ladled into large pots at the kettle and brought to the basement for jarring.  The lids are already immersed in boiling water and the jars have been “hotted.”  Bruce’s Mama pours boiling water from the kettle over them. The water is emptied from the jars and apple butter is funneled into them.  A  lid is removed from the pot of boiling water, placed on top of the jar,  and the ring is screwed on tight.  The full Mason jar gets a swift wipe with the dishcloth and is set on the farm table to seal.  When every bit of the apple butter is jarred there is about twenty gallons (all quart and pint jars).  After the clean up, we sit around the woodstove in the basement and listen to the “pop” of the jars as they seal.  The jars are divided evenly between the workers.  We usually consume two to three quarts during a winter.  The other twenty-odd jars are given as gifts. 

I walked out onto the porch today, watering can in hand, giving my geraniums a drink.  I heard the familiar crack and thunk of wood being split.   It’s the fifth of September.  Apples are hanging on the trees up the road and Bruce is getting ready.  Three miles to the east of us, his Daddy is standing in the shed eyeing the copper kettle.  He’s expecting a phone call in the next week or so.  Tradition demands it.

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