The story of how and why our family starting making apple butter is found in my soon to be published book “A Wish Called Wanda.” It’s a tale of a mother’s ingenuity to meet a heartfelt need for her four teenagers. Fifty-five years later it is now a deep family tradition that brings siblings and grandchildren, nieces and nephews, friends, and relatives of all sorts together on a fall day in October to peel and stir, visit and eat, until the sauce in the bubbly pot is deemed “apple butter.”
Each year the eating frenzy, disguised as making apple butter, begins with eight families gathering apples of all varieties from different markets and orchards in our apple laden county of Adams in the beautiful hills of Pennsylvania.
The buckets, boxes and crates full of the tempting fruit, start piling up on my back porch on Friday afternoon.
The preparation for peeling 10 bushel of apples begins by protecting my floors from dropped peelings, apple juice and many sticky feet with some heavy duty tarps. I think the dog is wondering if this means he can now pee on the floor.
The peeling begins early, after a supper of chili dogs and bar-b-que with many snacks to hold us over because
the finger staining, hand numbing task goes on way after dark.
Not to mention we take all the help we can get from those cute little guys anxious to turn a handle.
There are those who are dedicated to the proposition of getting up before sunrise, making the 20 mile trip to my sisters farm, to get the 25 gallon copper kettle on, and the fire started and the first apples cooking. I am not one of them. My wonderful picture taking daughter is, however, and she captured these last few moments of the awesome harvest moon we had Friday night, that lasted into the wee hours of the morning.
When dawn breaks there is a lot of activity around the kettle as the sun and the steam rises to greet the day.
Nothing makes a fall picture like a red barn, a flock of hens, a couple of geese, green grass and yellow leaves.
Brother Ken and brother-in-law, John enjoy the traditional breakfast prepared by host and sister Brenda. It is our once a year taste of old fashioned buckwheat cakes with sausage and worst meat. We also love her homemade canned grape juice, a sweet liquid, used to wash those heavy duty pancakes and the thick meat sauce down.
Breakfast ends at 9am and the morning passes with people gathering, kettle stirring, tractor riding, and corn cracking so the kids can feed the chickens and turn handles.
When Brenda starts clanging the dinner bell, people come from all over the farm to gather around the kettle for some inspiration. This includes a prayer of gratitude for our heritage, our families and our food.
It also includes the passing of what we lovingly call the “coveted copper kettle award.” Randy, a country boy at heart, received the award last year. He told us he loves the apple butter tradition and wants to see the young people continue with it. So this year he presented the flower pot sized copper kettle, filled with Reeces Peanut Butter Cups to 12 year old Dylan who has shown great interest in learning the cooking process from his father,Tom. Tom was quite young when he took an interest in the kettle process, learning from his father, George who learned it from his father, George Sr.
We are confident the tradition will continue into the next generations and we are all approving as the kettle, concealed in a basket, is passed. The basket came about when “the cow,” reminiscent of George Sr’s farm, and “the book” with the award presentations written each year, were added to the kettle presentation.
Ahhh, breakfast is only enjoyed by those who arrive by the 9 o’clock hour but everyone who is coming is there by noon and lunch is served shortly thereafter. The line winds around several food laden counters and continues with drinks and desserts on the patio.
The stirring continues into the afternoon. About 2:30 the water tests begin and the sugar is added one 4 pound bag at a time while the sampling is discussed. Then the few magic spices are added till the tasters; kettle master Dick, head taster George, and taster apprentice, Gina along with approval from eldest sister, Jeannine declare it’s “Apple Butter.”
The word quickly spreads and the readied jars are filled with the boiling sauce so that they are sealing even before we are finished filling the last jar.
When the kettle is empty and the jars are full, warm fresh baked bread is pulled from the oven and passed around to all those who want a swipe of the good stuff left in the kettle before it is cleaned. In the house we save a quart or two so that everyone can have a sampling before calling it a long, fun day.
There are just over 116 pints of sealed apple butter to be divided among the families and enjoyed all through the year.