Fall color and, especially, the crisp, cool, weather will always inspire me to get outside. Fall family traditions are another great way to explore nature and gain inspirations for future paintings. I recently took a break from my artwork just long enough to find my muse in the great outdoors…
You know there are some family traditions that are just delicious! And when I say delicious, I mean, nothing like it anywhere. My family has a fall tradition that has lasted for literally centuries, making apple butter. Not just from apple sauce in a crock pot, but real, honest to goodness pure apple butter cooked slowly in a big copper pot; the kind that is warm and thick and smooth and has a spicy tingly snap that your tongue welcomes every time you open a jar.
Some of my earliest memories in the mountains were of my family making homemade apple butter in a big cooking pot over an open fire. It was made with the simplest of ingredients of fresh fall apples, pure cane sugar, and pure cinnamon oil. It has been years since my grandma and grandpa made a batch. I was really missing this tradition.
However, last week, my Aunt Maggie, (well doesn’t everybody have one?) called me up and said she was going to make apple butter with her family and invited me over. She and her son, Fred had been preparing for the event for a couple of months. The first thing they did was to check the signs. According to old traditions, the best time to make apple butter was during a full moon, or at least when the “tips” of the moon pointed up. This was to ensure that the least amount of apple butter would be lost by boiling out of the pot. They also had peeled and sliced 5 bushels of Fall Winesap apples to prepare for the big event and had placed them in the freezer weeks ago. These were her preferred apples, however, she tells me any good cooking apple will do! The big copper pot had to be cleaned out with butter milk; the milk acids help to kill any impurities on the surface and so it conditions the pot. Now, they were ready for the big day!
So, I set out early Saturday morning and headed across the mountain to Tennessee. When I arrived, about 7:30 am, Fred was already stirring the copper pot. He had started the fire just after 5:00 am and had got the coals burned down enough to place the pot over the fire and pour in the apples. Now, Aunt Maggie’s copper pot holds about 12 gallons, that figures out to be about 48 quarts, however, you do lose some in the process. That’s enough for everyone to enjoy throughout the winter and have a few jars to give to a small group of special some ones!
Aunt Maggie just loves telling the story about how they came to own the copper pot. It doesn’t matter how many times I’ve heard her tell the story, my eyes are fixed on her and I listen close to every detail all over again. It seems that when she and my Uncle Roy first got married, over 40 years ago, money was kind of tight. They were just starting their family and every penny they made went for bills. Aunt Maggie’s family had made apple butter since she could remember and they mostly had to borrow a cooking pot from a neighbor. Well, she thought it was time to invest in one for her family. She went down to the local hardware store in town and they had one left just the right size. She arranged to lay it away and pay 10.00 a week until it was paid for. She took her baby sitting money and put it towards the pot without Uncle Roy knowing it. Until one day, she had just two payments left and she told him about the purchase of 150.00 for the pot. Well, Uncle Roy decided all that money could be better spent on more important things and asked her to relinquish the layaway and get her money back. He went on to work and she planned to go to the hardware store later that day and close the account. About lunch time, Uncle Roy called her and told her that if she wanted the pot that bad to go and pay it off and get it out of layaway. Come to find out, Uncle Roy had called around to see if he could get one cheaper somewhere else. Well, all of the ones he checked on were at least twice the amount. So Aunt Maggie got her copper pot! Her dad even welded a custom stand for it that she still uses today!
Well, this morning, the pot was full of sliced apples. It was slowly heating up and had to be constantly stirred. Now you know why it is a Family tradition! Because one person could not possibly stir the pot until the apple butter was done. It takes the apples about 12 hrs to cook down to a smooth thick consistency and lots of strong arms to man the stirring paddle. The paddle is made from oak and has several 2 inch holes drilled in it to allow the cooking apples to pass through, further breaking them down into apple sauce. It has a 6 foot handle that is just the right size to allow all sized family members to participate. From young to older, everyone takes a turn. This is a whole day process, but well worth it when the day is done!
The apples have to be stirred constantly to keep them from burning. They are allowed to cook down to about half before the sugar is added. That takes about 10 hours total. What do we do for all that time besides stir? Well, we tell stories and share lunch, which just happens to be a big pot of soup beans that Aunt Maggie has been cooking in the house all morning. She pulled the corn pones out of the oven, piping hot and baked in an iron skillet! Boy, it just doesn’t get any better than this! I put chopped onions and homemade pickle relish in mine and set the corn bread on the side. This was a great feast that brought back fond memories of times past. It was still kind of chilly outside, but this dish was guaranteed to warm you from the inside out!
Now, some neighbors happened to stop by to see what was going on in the back yard. They were readily put to work stirring the pot. That will teach them to be so curious next time! No, they were enjoying every minute of it! The neighbors had memories of making apple butter, as well, and were happy to share their stories from long ago. It seems their family had another tradition when it came to making apple butter. One gentleman inquired as to if we had “added our silver dollars” to the slurry of apples. I had never heard that before and was very curious to find out why! He went on to say they used to add silver dollars to help clean the bottom of the pot and keep the apples from sticking. Another in the crowd suggested adding red hot candies to the apples for color and flavor the way his family made it. Well, Aunt Maggie smiled and listened but was not intrigued enough by the alternate ideas to change anything about the way she made her apple butter! If it’s not broke…. Don’t fix it! That seemed to be her answer to their suggestions!
So, “Stir the pot, stir the pot”, was the song to sing as the fire was fed to keep the apples cooking. After a few hours, the smooth apple sauce seemed to be erupting like little volcanoes all over the surface. “Tater hills, tater hills! We got tater hills forming on top! Aunt Maggie exclaimed. This seemed to be an important event that signifies it’s almost time to add the sugar! Fred came from the house to deliver a 25lb. bag of Dixie Crystals Pure Cane Sugar to the cooking spot. Wow, that’s a lot of sugar. We will never be able to use all of that, I thought. Well, adding the sugar is all about the timing. And everyone had their own opinion as to when that would be. But the only one that mattered was Aunt Maggie’s as she was the one running the show. As she watched the pot closely and looked at her watch, she decided the apple butter needed to cook a little while longer. False alarm! The fire had to die down before we could add the sugar anyway, so we waited and shared another story or two.
Finally, with all of us anticipating, Aunt Maggie gave Fred the go ahead to add the sugar. With the pot being constantly stirred, in went the sugary white and shiny grains, and the apples enveloped the sweet goodness. Fred held back about a third of the bag to let Aunt Maggie test the mixture. Hmmm, nope, it needs more, and then more, and finally the entire bag was emptied into the pot! Wow, that seems like a whole lot of sugar! But a lot of the sweetness cooks out of it, so what seems like too much is justttt right! The sweetened apple sauce changes to a dramatic quinacridone sienna color after the sugar is added. Beautiful! Now, the apple butter has to cook one more hour. And so the stirring continues.
The last hour of cooking is the perfect time to get all the jars, lids, and rings ready to process. We have quart jars, pint jars, and even half-pint jars that are great for giving! Everyone who helps takes home some apple butter. It’s only right, ‘cause you can’t make it by yourself and there’s always plenty. The last thing to add and the most important ingredient is the cinnamon oil. Aunt Maggie had to search high and low for the purest cinnamon oil she could buy. It was found at a pharmacy, behind the counter! Cinnamon oil is used medicinally for many ailments including rheumatism, arthritis and general pains. The use of cinnamon in apple butter serves as a sure cure for hunger pains, as well, especially when administered on a big ole biscuit! Yummy! The heat had to be removed before the cinnamon oil could be added. Fred shoveled the hot coals and fire into a metal box and moved it away from the pot.
Then, the oil was added to the apples, stirred in and tested and more was added until everyone agreed with Aunt Maggie that the recipe was complete and perfect! It’s a science you know, an exactness, that you just know is right every time.
Well, with the last hour’s time approaching, we all helped to prepare the filling station tables. Everyone had a job- place the empty jar in the pan, put the funnel on the jar, fill the jar, clean the lip of the jar, lid the jar, ring the jar, tighten the jar lid and place the jar on the receiving table. All of this had to be done with care because the apple butter is at the boiling point. One wrong move and somebody could get burned. Places everyone, careful, careful, and fill the jars!
When the task was complete and the pot was emptied, the table was full of beautifully filled jars of apple butter. The jars will be left to cool and the lids will seal to preserve the apple butter for about a year. No one really knows what year-old apple butter tastes like because it’s always gone long before then! The time is now about 5pm, 12 hrs later than when the apples first went in. The apples, no longer whole fruits on the tree, are magically transformed into this wonderful tasting, delicious, family tradition called apple butter. As the sun is going down and the day is done, the jars are divided among all of the participants. And with visions of cat heads in a pan next to a freshly opened jar of apple butter, who could wait for the morning? Hey, Aunt Maggie!….Got any apple butter?!!!
Happy Autumn and Happy Apple Butter Day!