Apple Butter Season

Every year at Apple Butter season, my mind remembers the taste of it– the warm, rich, caramelized taste of apple butter stirred outside over an open fire, with the scarlet leaves falling in the last symphony of the season before winter set in.

It’s hard to find apple butter like that anymore– the real thing, with its deep, amber richness and its unbelievable depth of smoky spices.  Store-bought varieties simply do not compare.  Today I’m putting in a shameless plug for a small business which specializes in bringing back those heirloom variety small farm products– local honey, goat’s milk caramel, maple syrup, and small batch jams, jellies, and apple butters.  This is not a paid post– but, rather, my impressions of a small business, Simply Heartland, who has made it their mission to take local farm products and share them with the public.  The owners, Elicia and Doug, explained to me that their childhoods growing up in small farming communities gave them a passion for those products that were made in small, beautiful batches– often with neighbors and friends making the day of helping the work go by, and then sharing the fruits of their labors.

Elicia told me that their passion in this business is to help small farmers share their products with others– to preserve the legacies of these all but forgotten recipes which are a window into the culinary heritage of America– when grocery stores and refrigeration were unheard of, and food was enjoyed and preserved at the height of its freshness to support your family.  Those recipes were bred of necessity– getting through the winter without a walmart around the corner– and also of creativity– finding ways to keep the fruit and vegetables at their freshest and most delicious all season long.  These are the foods that your great grandparents probably grew up making, enjoying, treasuring.  From the first taste you can tell that these are the real deal– recipes passed down from generation to generation, rather than mass produced grocery store products.

A jar of home-canned apple butter, spread over crackling, warm buttered toast in the dead of winter is a gift.  And if you can’t find a local farm in your area to support, then I would highly recommend Simply Heartland— both for the quality of their products and the mission and purpose behind it– to preserve small businesses, family farms, and the recipes that stretch back for generations, like an edible montage of America’s past.

What are we waiting for?  Let’s do this!

Apple Butter Season

There is nothing quite like apple butter season.

It starts in the wee hours of the morning– when the murky velvet of the sky can’t seem to decide if it wants to be the dark of night or the first wink of day.  The stars watch curiously while you start the wood fires, hefting big, cured logs of hardwood into flaming piles that will burn down into the embers of red hot charcoal for heating the big iron pots.

Apple Butter Season

The men tend the fires while the women prep the apples and spices.  Making real apple butter is an almost forgotten art that truly takes a village.  Bushel after bushel of apples are cored and sliced before being put through a food mill to remove the peels.  Steam rises from the almost unbelievably hot water where the ladies wash the dishes.  I could never understand how their hands could take it.

The sky is just starting to turn pink.

Apple Butter Season

The men send a representative– usually a young boy who was sent “out with the men” but isn’t yet old enough to do anything but run messages back and forth– to tell the women that the fires are ready.

It’s time to begin.

Apple Butter Season

Huge iron pots the size of small bathtubs are now hung over the coals.  Apple cider goes in first– you can smell the scent of it sizzling when it touches the sides of the pan for the first time.  Next come the apples– dishpan after dishpan of them.  Sugar comes next, added by the pitcherful.  The apples and sugar are added gradually, making sure that there is always enough liquid from the cider and cooked down apples to ensure that nothing sticks or burns.

There is nothing more heartbreaking than burning a batch of apple butter.  It’s much better to go slowly and carefully.  The best things in life cannot be rushed.

Apple Butter Season

The cooking takes all day, and sometimes long into the night.  People take turns stirring the gigantic pots with stirring sticks that look like the letter “L” turned sideways.  You walk the paddle toward and away from the pot, stirring it deeply like the oar of a boat.  Your paddle scrapes the bottom of the pot with each rotation, ensuring that nothing sticks.  The men add more apples and sugar as the mixture cooks down, until the pot is completely full, with only a few inches to spare from the top.

Apple Butter Season

Slowly, the sweet mixture turns into applesauce, and then into dark, rich, golden brown velvet.  The apples are caramelizing and giving up their sweetness– the very essence of autumn.  Near the end of the process, the spices are added– cinnamon and sometimes a little hint of clove.  No recipes are used.  Tasting is the only way to tell when it’s ready.  When the batch is done, it is ladled into sterilized jars and canned in vats of boiling water.  The jars are nestled together and covered with towels, where they cool and sound like machine gun fire with a series of gigantic POPS as they seal.

All day the women work in the steamy kitchen, making breakfasts of gigantic homemade cinnamon rolls and lunches of steaming chicken noodle soup and sandwiches on homemade bread.  Everyone takes turns working, eating, working again.  My grandma says that “many hands make light work.”

The jars will line the shelves of all the helpers through the winter– little jewels of promise glistening in the darkness of the cellar, waiting to be brought upstairs to do a beautiful waltz with someone’s morning toast.

They will help us remember the promise of crisp October, even on the coldest, snowiest winter morning.

It has been many years since I helped to make apple butter over a wood fire, but the taste has never left me.  I have one rule for good apple butter– it should make me close my eyes when I taste it.

This one did.  Small farms always do it right.

And my morning toast has never been more grateful.

You did it.  And I’m just so proud of you.


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