The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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from the
Heart of the Blue Ridge

Apple Butter Making Time

By Nancy Cornette Kessler © 1989

Issue: October, 1989

Members of the Carr Memorial Church, Princeton, West Virginia, making Apple Butter.Members of the Carr Memorial Church, Princeton, West Virginia, making Apple Butter.The time of the year is approaching; brisk chilly mornings, leaves turning; the promise of frost in the air - which brings back to me memories of the time each year when we made apple butter on the farm some fifty-five to seventy years ago.

This was as much a social gathering as the work it took to prepare the apples for the apple butter kettle the following morning. Mother would get on that old crank turned telephone hanging on the wall and call neighbors and relatives to bring a sharp knife and come to an "apple peeling".

This was a common occurrence in many homes in the mountain community where people helped each other with various and sundry jobs.

After an early supper, people would begin arriving, men and women alike, and congregate in the kitchen and on the back porch where sacks of apples and a large wash tub was stashed.

The younger children and those old enough for school were allowed to stay up a while, but went to bed early and reluctantly, amid the laughing and talking going on around them.

It did not take long for so many hands to fill the tub with peeled apples. This was all done by lamp light. Then everyone departed for home knowing they had to get up at 4:30 or 5:00 am.

My father as well as most farmers, had to rise early, do the morning chores and head for the fields, but he always lit a fire in an open section of the wood house under shelter and placed the huge iron kettle on its rack with legs and filled it with apples which had to be stirred almost immediately.

Mother's faithful helper, my paternal grandfather would be arriving shortly to stand all day, taking turns with Mama to stir the apple butter.

I can see him now coming down the road, a tall thin gentle man, over six feet tall, with a shock of white hair and keen blue eyes, walking straight and tall with the help of a cane which he had made. He had a crippled leg which was injured in the Civil War.

He came every year to help stir the apple butter until he was confined to a wheel chair. He and mother took turns while we children kept the fire burning steadily from the large stack of wood Papa had placed nearby. Grandpa had made the wooden stirrer which had been in use many years as had the apple butter kettle which was used by both families (as were many pieces of equipment and farm machinery). Papa's younger brother and he worked together on their farm jobs and shared tools as well as their labor.

Uncle Olin lived in the large farm house with my grandparents and eventually, as was the custom in those days, inherited the house and farm for caring for the aging parents.

By mid-afternoon the apples had cooked up and were beginning to thicken and bubble and to turn a lovely shade of red. Mama and Grandpa consulted and tested the hot bubbly mass and the many pounds of sugar were added gradually and stirred some more. The fire was allowed to die down and finally the oil of cinnamon was added for flavor.

To our delight, Grandpa fished small paddles out of his pocket which he had whittled from wood and gave each of us one to sample the product of their labors. When they decided it was time to "take it off," Mama had different size stoneware crocks ready which they filled with the help of a large dipper and when it was cool, covered with clean cloths, then heavy paper and tied securely with stout string to be stored in the cellar by the men when they came home.

Today the modern version of apple butter making is practiced by members of my church here in West Virginia. Mostly women cut the unpeeled apples into small slices, while a few retired men help with the heavier work in the church kitchen. The women work in an adjoining class room. Another group cooks the apples and runs them through a food processor to make the applesauce. Usually it takes about seven bushels of apples to fill the large kettle, the same type used by our parents and grandparents. This kettle belongs to a church family and is over 100 years old.

When finished, the sauce is put in large containers and stored in a cool basement until morning. The following morning members of the various church groups meet at the members house where the apple sauce is stored and the kettle, clean and shinning is waiting in the garage with the doors open. Dozens and dozens of pint and quart jars are clean and standing by on the tables nearby. Before the apple sauce is poured into the kettle, 10 copper pennies are placed in the bottom of the kettle to prevent sticking and scorching.

Instead of wood, bottled gas is used and the stirring is started. We all take turns stirring and some of the women go up to the kitchen to prepare the lunch - favorite dishes of food brought by each family present. The men are invited to eat first while the women stir; then the men take their turn and the ladies eat. This operation goes smoothly until, after much testing, the sugar is gradually added and finally the oil of cinnamon is added. The heat is turned low, the apple butter thickens and the consistency is pronounced "just right."

The assembly line forms around the tables with two persons filling jars, others wiping the tops of the jars, another placing the lids and rings on them, another screwing the lids on tightly, another handing the hot jars to another group who turns them upside down to seal. The bottom of the kettle is scraped clean and the 10 pennies are removed and counted. Two or three times in the many years this project has been undertaken, a couple of pennies could not be found, so someone might be surprised to find a penny in the bottom of their jar of apple butter.

Each year our church groups make four kettles of apple butter to sell at our annual fall bazaar, usually 100 gallons or more. It is sold so fast that people stand in line early to get some before it is all sold. This modern way of making this delicious mixture is easier and faster, but none the less, retains that old fashioned flavor just like our mothers and grandmothers made so many years ago.