Wednesday, August 30, 2006


Apple Peeler by Arthur Rothstein,
Farm Security Administration

One of my favorite childhood memories took place during a long night standing around the apple butter churn. “Apple Butter,” what a great sounding name to make my mouth water. I still try to enjoy my grandmother’s canned apple butter from years ago that was once stacked on the shelves of the family cellar. Now, that fall is coming I have longingly thought about apples and what I might be able to pull together. What about apple pie, apple bobbing at Halloween, apple sauce, apple festivals, apple juice, Johnny Apple Seed, and so on? God, I love Apples.
My family had four types of apple trees on our land along with two pear trees, a couple of cherry trees, grape vines, and blackberry bushes. Fall always meant that I could walk out of the house and climb into one of these trees and eat for hours. We did not use pesticides and so there was a race between us and the rest of nature to enjoy such glorious things produced right outside my home. I must say that if I had my choice to sit down and either enjoy a fancy Italian meal on the streets of Florence or a country biscuit with a spoonful of apple butter oozing from the middle I would definitely pull up my chair on a brisk morning in the mountains with the biscuit. There is something beautiful about a mountain breakfast. My grandmother and I used to share tomato slices on toast, that’s good eatin. But the fall apple butter was the moment we waited for. The process of making apple butter is this: There is no right recipe. So many variations exist but the process is usually the same. The key ingredients to making apple butter are patience and work. The apple are sliced and placed into a very large open fire pot, or caldron with the specific ingredients selected. There should be a good constant first burning under this caldron the full time of cooking. In order to break down the slices into a type of mush the caldron must keep cooking over night. In most cases making apple butter meant some kind of festival in order to have teams of people stand around the fire all night with an apple butter churner in hand. Do not stop churning the apple butter because you do not want to have this goodness baking on the side of the caldron. The best tasting apple butter comes after years of cooking this pot over an open fire. The black soot that bakes on the outside of the caldron forms a type of insulation. This is why you do not want to clean the outside when you are done. Also to store the caldron you should wipe olive oil on the inside and then leave it upside down until the next year.
So, back to my first paragraph and why this one night became an important part in my life. My grandfather died of Black Lung when I was 4 years old so I really only have two personal memories of the man. Clarence Crabtree worked in the Gypsum Mine in Saltville VA for most of his adult life and formed a case of Black Lung. During this late fall night I guess my parents let me stay up with the crowd of people at the house to help stir the butter. I remember when the truck arrived with freshly picked apples from Chilhowie, VA and as they unloaded the trucks my grandfather came over to me and handed me an apple. He then sat me down on one of the bushels that rested on the truck and carried me riding this apple cart over to the tables where my relatives stood around slicing the apples. I remember his knife my grandfather pulled out to start slicing the apples open. I have kept that knife since he passed away. I remember spending the whole night with my grandfather, learning how and what he was doing to prepare for the cooking. The essence of apple butter is a symbol of a community coming together to create something beautiful and nourishing, it is the spice that makes the paste good. It is a symbol of my family’s closeness and what happens when we work together as one. It is simply a symbol of love, the kind of love people from that Appalachian mountains know by heart, the thing that pumps through their veins.

Great Links

The Secrets of Apple Butter

VA Apple Growers Association

VA Apple Festivals

Check out the Cookbook Listed here:
Smokehouse Ham, Spoon Bread & Scuppernong Wine:
The Folklore and Art of Southern Appalachian Cooking

Above Photo Link

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