A story about my family and I and an annual ritual. Making Apple Butter the old way.
It was easy to tell when it was time to start preparing for the annual Apple Butter making ritual. The leaves would start to show a hint of color as the nights got cooler. Soon the first hard freeze would bring out Autumn in all it's colorful beauty. Labor Day weekend was a distant memory as the calendar stated it was time to prepare for Halloween. The second week of October was usually unseasonably warm during the day with cold nights which was perfect weather to put the finishing touches on the apple orchards and their bounty.
I grew up in a family that believed in things like planting a big garden every year so there would be plenty of food to be preserved by either freezing or canning. There was also hunting to be done during this time of year for rabbits, squirrels, wild turkey, and deer. The meat from all of these that wasn't eaten fresh was put up in the freezer to be enjoyed throughout the winter and spring.
The garden also yielded hundreds of pounds of potatoes, carrots, and other root vegetables that would be placed in a wooden bin in the back of the basement where they would be safe from freezing during the cold winter months.
There was always one section of the bin left empty until apple butter time to be used for twenty five to thirty bushels of apples that would only be there for a short time.
The "ritual" of making homemade apple butter was a week long process and the plans for that week had to be made well in advance with every detail covered. First on the list would be a trip to the local orchard when the apples were just ripe enough to begin falling off the trees. The preferred species of apple was a dark red, sweet variety known as Wine Saps. There would also be a few bushels of another kind too but it depended on what was available year to year.
Next a list of possible help and volunteers was produced with the promise that those who chose to help with the orchard run, the peeling and snitting of the apples, or the all day stirring that would take place on Saturday would receive free apple butter when the final product was in jars and ready to box up.
There was sugar to buy and firewood to gather along with a long list of little things needing done that would make the yearly endeavor a success so quite a few able bodies were needed at different times from start to finish.
Early on a Saturday morning all of us kids would be awakened to the sound of our grandfather saying it was time to pick the apples. After a quick breakfast in the wee hours of the morning we would all pile in Pops jeep and along with a couple other vehicles we would make the hour and a half drive to the orchard.
One of my favorite memories from this was arriving at the orchard very early in the morning and the heavy dew on the grass around the trees would soak your shoes through after only a short walk. The fog would be rising with the coming rays of the morning sun and all of the different insects would begin their morning song.
After checking in at the gate we would be told what part of the orchard to go to in order to find the variety of apples we were after. I will always remember the old man who owned the orchard because of his huge smile and the fact that he sounded like Elmer Fudd when he gave us the directions. My father and I would share a private joke about it for years to come with all due respect to him.
He would say "OK you go down this road to the first WEFT and then you go past the shed and make a WIGHT, then count the rows of TWEES until you pass the third row. Make a WEFT and the TWEES you are looking for are WIGHT there…". He would grin at us kids knowing our giggles were innocent and without malice.
After a short bumpy ride into the middle of all the trees we would all pile out and start looking for ladders. The rule was you could take anything on the ground and only the apples on the trees the ladders would reach. A big no-no was shaking the trees to get more apples from the top but the management seemed to look the other way so we could get the best for our venture.
Grabbing a towel to wipe the dew off the apples along with a stack of peck baskets numbering 5 or 6 we would head off under the rows of perfectly pruned trees looking for the one with the brightest red apples. Another sign of a tree full of good apples was the number of them laying on the ground. If there wasn't any at all it meant that tree needed a few more days to ripen but if you happened upon one that had a few apples here and there on the ground then it was time to fill your baskets.
When the sun was high above our head and the temperature had climbed into the 70's and everyone had removed the heavy jackets needed earlier in the AM the picking was better than half way finished. There was always a couple pick up trucks in the crowd and they would have the beds lined with heavy cardboard so that as the baskets were filled they could be dumped loosely into the pick up beds. In the end we would leave for home with 25 or 30 bushels and a lot of tired bodies.
Getting home well after dark the last job of the day would be to unload the apples on a prepared place on the basement floor. This location was picked due to the cool concrete and fairly dark. At this point the apples would be sorted, placed in burlap bags, and placed in the potato bin at the back of the basement. They were ready for the job at hand which was peeling and cutting the apples into much smaller pieces. Here they would sit in the cool dark basement until the following Thursday.
Hand Cranked Peelers and Snits
That Thursday started early for my grandparents. My grandmother was up at the crack of dawn to start a day of many chores in preparation for the group of people who would be showing up for breakfast. These people were usually neighbors and relatives who lived close by. There was always lots of volunteers to choose from due to the fact that anyone other than immediate family who helped with the process in one way or another would receive free quarts of the finished product.
Gramma would pull out numerous paring knives to sharpen as Pop fried bacon and eggs for the "early crew". Once the breakfast dishes had been done the women prepared the kitchen for the days activities by clearing the table, sliding all the chairs into the living room and the pulling the table apart so two large side boards could be added. This would make it possible for up to twelve people to sit and work on the apples at the same time. The other part of the process could be found in the basement.
Together with us and a few others we would assemble a long wooden plank table to sawhorses in the basement that would hold the peelers. These little mechanical wonders peeled an apple with 4 or 5 turns of a small crank. The apple would be impaled on a small pitchfork looking set of spikes. A long lever with a razor sharp blade on it would circle the apple as you turned the cranks. Some models even cored the apple for you. Thanks to others who had peelers of their own we would line up four or five in a row.
The bags of apples were brought in two at a time in order to keep all the peelers running. There would be peeler break downs and replacements put to use and everyone did what ever it took to accomplish the task at hand which was to turn 40 bushel of apples into small bits of apple known as snits.
Just as quick as the apples were peeled and placed in large tin pans they were taken off to other parts of the basement or upstairs to a large number of people standing by with small metal pans and very sharp paring knives. The "snitting" would begin. Now for anyone who doesn't know the term snitting or snits when it comes to apples allow me to explain
When someone received peeled apples they would take them one at a time, cut them in quarters. remove the core, trim off any left over peel and bruises, then cut the quartered wedge in two again to make eights. Once they were this size they were considered snits. The reason for snitting was so when the small pieces of apple were introduced to the kettle they would cook up much faster than large chunks of apple.
In an assembly line fashion the apples went from being snitted to being washed in cool water, to being bagged up in large plastic trash bags and placed back on the cool basement floor. The entire process would take about 18 hours to make enough snits to make a large kettle of apple butter.
Twelve Hours Worth of Firewood
While most of those involved were busy preparing the snits my grandfather and I along with a few other men would head off to the woods to cut firewood for a fire that would be required to burn very hot for a period of 10 to 12 hours. Along with the amount needed being large it also had to be a certain kind of wood. Pop would only allow us to cut, split and gather dead hardwood. Species like hickory and maple were preferred but anything that wasn't fir was acceptable.
The mountain closest to town, known as Backbone Mountain, was a really good place to go for free firewood because years before a man who lived just outside of town, along the railroad, had taken a small bulldozer and over the course of one summer cut small single lane dirt roads all over the mountain. The reason for this was to create fire breaks due to a bad wildfire years before that had threatened the town.
Some of these small dirt roads are still in use today as access roads into the state forest. Others have been gated off or grown over years ago but the best part about all of them is the amount of dead hardwood to be found still standing close to the road.
We would make many trips over the course of two days and in the end the woodpile had grown by about 2 cord of dry dead hardwood ready to make a very hot fire. About the same time the last stick of wood was stacked close to the location the kettle would be placed on Saturday, the last bag of snits would be added to the large pile of black bags in the basement.
By the time everything was in place to cook a large kettle full of apples it was Friday evening and everyone involved was two things. Very tired and very hungry. It was tradition for all involved to break bread together with a meal fit for two kings including flap jacks smothered in butter and syrup, bacon, sausage, and the evening was topped off with warm toast, buttered, and lathered with a large gob of last years apple butter. It was considered good luck for the next day.
Shiny Pennies and Large Copper Kettles
Finally the big day was at hand. Saturday would start very early once again for quite a few people but the first to rise at our house was the grandparents. I would hear the bathroom door squeak shut and turn to look at my bedside clock knowing it would let me know it was 4:30 am. It wasn't long until the familiar smells of coffee and bacon frying meant Pop was in the kitchen and it was time to get up even though the sun wouldn't be making an appearance for at least two more hours.
I remember getting up to the smell of breakfast and after a quick trip to the bathroom I would hurry back to my bedroom to get dressed. From an early age I was always known to lay out what I wanted to wear the next day on important dates like Christmas, birthdays, first day of deer season, and most importantly apple butter time.
As I said before since it was mid October the nights were getting down below freezing on average so putting on long underwear to start the day was mandatory. Down the stairs and out to the kitchen for a quick but hearty breakfast and then down through the basement with the men folk to get everything ready to coo bushels of apples for 8 to 10 hours.
It was the beginning of a very long day.
It was time for everything to be set up included getting the kettle and stand set firmly which was very important. It would be a disaster for things to get uneven with the stand in the evening when the kettle would be near full with 35 to 40 gallons of boiling hot apple butter.
The large, heavy, metal stand built from scratch by a friend of my grandfather. He was known as the best welder in the county and the stand married up with the large, copper kettle like it was made for it, which it was.
A level spot in the garden would be the spot for the days activity so the stand would be set and leveled on hard earth with no shimming of any kind. At the same time a tripod made from three rough cut logs would be erected over the area where the stand was placed. Since it was still dark the tripod would come in handy until the sun made an appearance to hold an extension cord with a drop light on the end of it. This would be our only light until the fire was blazing brightly, and then it would be laid aside until dark thirty cam creeping around later in the day to serve the same purpose.
Gramma would show up for the first time with a gallon of vinegar, a box of table salt, a large jar full of pennies numbering 333, and a large scrub brush. The pennies were all different shades of copper and other colors due to dirt and oxidation but that would soon change. They were also random pennies with many different dates.
After the pennies were deposited in the bottom of the kettle the vinegar and salt would follow along with some pre heated boiling water. Aided by a pair of heavy rubber gloves Gramma would go head first into the steaming pot and scrub the entire inside surface of the kettle clean of the oxidation and dirt that had accumulated over the year spent in the attic.
When she was satisfied with her efforts the garden hose would be turned on and everything would be thoroughly rinsed clean, the pennies collected, and the kettle turned on its side to drain. At this point you would need sunglasses on to look inside the kettle or at the pile of pennies. Everything looked like brand new copper including the oldest of all the pennies. It was an amazing transformation to see.
The next thing was to get the fire started that would be kept going at a roaring pace all day and into the evening. There would be a stack of finely split kindling along with Pops traditional red flare, better known as a Fuzee, to get the fire burning quick and hot. Ten minutes later we would start adding the bigger pieces of wood and at that point things got a little hectic.
Before the fire could get the bottom of the kettle warm Gramma would be there with a couple gallons of homemade grape juice and the first large pan of apple snits. That would be the first of many trips made with this pan and a couple others like it until all the apples were added to the mix. That would happen sometime in the late afternoon or early evening after the apples were cooked down to sauce and allowed to simmer hard for hours.
Something else that started to happen that would continue non stop for the duration was the addition of the large, long handled, L shaped, stirring paddle that looked like something out of the middle ages.
It would be placed in the kettle very soon after adding the first ingredients and the first of many people would step up and begin to stir in a pre determined pattern. Starting on the side closest to the person stirring the motion would be to push the large paddle up thru the middle and the over to one side or the other to pull it back, then back up through the middle and back down the other side.
This pattern would be repeated thousands of time throughout the day and into the evening until the apple butter was cooked down to a thick, dark brown, sauce. There would be many variations of the pattern but the middle and both sides would be stirred well every time.
The most important thing to remember for those taking a turn stirring was to be sure and keep the bottom of the paddle on the bottom of the kettle. All of this worked together with the pennies to keep the apple butter from sticking and scorching. A nice steady stir with the same pattern every time was preferred by the Boss… Gramma.
Sugar and Spice and Snits
After about twelve hours of stirring and keeping a steady hot fire going under the kettle the last of the apple snits would be added. Keep in mind, at this point, 30 plus bushels of apples had been reduced to the consistency of a very thick apple sauce. The kettle would be within six inches of the sauce overflowing into the fire and everything was in place for the next step.
Adding the sugar and spices that would turn the entire kettle of applesauce into a dark brown, very thick, sauce that could stand up in a whip on your toast like the top of an ice cream cone was the next step. My Gramma took on the job of mixing a secret list of spices together that included cinnamon, nutmeg, and a few others that she kept to herself. This mixture would be added after many five pound bags of sugar had been added first.
When I say many I mean many. If my memory serves me right there was 60 or 70 pounds of sugar bought every year and all but one or two bags would be used. Sounds like a lot of sugar but keep in mind it was being used to sweeten 35 to 40 gallons of apple butter.
The last bag was always saved to put Grammas spices in so they would be added last.
Once all of that was done the only thing left was two things. A steady hot fire which would keep the mixture at a slow boil and a steady set of hands on the stirrer. At this point the kettle would be very close to running over and fingers were always crossed waiting for the sauce to cook down into a butter before it happened.
Another problem arose about this time. Lots of steam, from cooking down the apples, swirling around on top of the kettle making hard to see just how full it was.
Oh yea…. Remember that tripod that got tossed aside early in the morning ? Yea that one… It would be set back up a little off center of the kettle and high enough to dangle the light directly above the steaming mass and smoke from the fire. The end of the day was in sight at this point but there would be much intense work jammed into a short period of time coming up before it would be over.
My favorite memory from this time in the process was the smell of the apple butter as it slowly cooked and boiled just enough to make these huge apple butter bubbles on top. When they would pop and you standing down wind of the kettle you get a hint of the smells to come along with plenty of wood smoke from the fire.
This was also the time Gramma would begin the first of many trips to the kettle with a small dipper and a white saucer. These were the tools of the expert taste tester and this was the time of day the people stirring found out how long their day was going to be.
The more sugar and spice that would be added at this point meant another half hour of cook time added also. If a small amount of apples was needed due to over sweetening or imbalance of spices that could add hours to the finish time.
Once Gramma announced all was well with the taste the final test of hers to pass was the thickness test. This is the one that could take half an hour or half the night to get right. This consisted of the same trips to the kettle with the same tools but this time instead of tasting she would take a full dipper and put it on the plate. If it fell out like a scoop of ice cream with a curl on top it was finished. If it didn't make the curl it meant it wasn't thick enough and would have to be cooked longer.
Dipping, Stirring, and Licking Pennies
Sometime between ten and midnight the order would be given to back off with the fire. At that point Pop would grab a garden rake and begin to pull burning pieces of wood out from under the stand. A piece here, a log there pulled out and dowsed with the hose. Eventually all that remained was a bed of coals which would be left to keep the bottom of the kettle warm while the dipping process started.
This part of the operation had to happen quickly so the apple butter would not have a chance to start cooling off too soon. For that reason a line of people would be assembled with large wash pans that would hold quite a few gallons of the good stuff.
There would be one person dipping from the kettle and a steady flow of five or six pans all at once. The hot pans were carried to the same area in the basement with the long bench which had been elevated to resemble a long table. It had been filled with quart mason jars, washed clean and dried, ready for another years worth of apple butter.
The women would be lined up in a line along both sides of the table waiting for the pans. Once they were placed on one end of the table the first two would dip jars full and slide them to the next woman who would tap the jar lightly on the table and place the seal ring and screw ring on the jar. Sliding along the next woman would wipe the jar and hand tighten the ring at the same time.
Once this was done the full jars were placed in a warm room and allowed to seal by making a popping sound. This meant the apple butter cooled enough for the rubber seal to do its job. Once in a while a jar wouldn't seal like the rest and it would have to be undone, a little warm apple butter added and then resealed. Nine out of ten done this way would seal the second time around.
Outside the kettle would be getting closer to being empty and that meant one thing. Warm, clean, pennies with lots of warm, fresh apple butter dripping from them. They would be placed on a plate and given to the kids and anyone else who wanted some. There was always warm toast floating around at this point also.
Once the kettle was completely empty there would be a few more chores to be done before we could call it a night. First the hose would be turned on and the leftovers on the rim of the kettle would be scrubbed. A putty knife would be employed to get the stuff off that had been baking on the hot rim all day. It would be a gummy gooey mess which resembled the stuff gummy bears are made out of.
After everything was knocked loose and scrubbed really well the stand and kettle would be rolled on their side and the fire dowsed well.
The final job was at hand at that point as the last quart jar was sealed. The kettle would need to be dried completely and carried, along with the stand back to the far corner of the attic to wait until next year.
Everyone involved would say their good byes and gather up their share of the good stuff and head out into the dark night.