The Timeless Tradition of Making Apple Butter

PHOTO: Making apple butter in 1981, courtesy of Mennonite Church USA Archives
PHOTO: Making apple butter in 1981, courtesy of Mennonite Church USA Archives

Whether you’re in the Deep South, the hills of West Virginia or the farmlands of Ohio, this time of year there is a scene that is repeated every weekend amid the turning leaves and crisp autumn air: A group of individuals, mostly elderly, gathered around a hot fire and a large metal kettle carrying on a tradition that predates the nation itself, producing apple butter.

These days, apple butter is mostly produced at community gettogethers, fall festivals and courtyards of aging country churches, but a hundred years ago producing apple butter was a family event.

The amount of labor required to produce apple butter in large quantities is intense, which yields itself to becoming an ideal opportunity for a social gathering — as some prepare the apples, while others stir the giant vat and someone else maintains the fire.

In an era long before refrigeration, residents of Appalachia would render apple butter into “fruit leather”, a dehydrated substance that is similar to the modern day snack, “Fruit by Foot”. The snack was prized for its sweet taste, nutritive value, and long storage life.

Traditionally, apple butter was prepared in large copper kettles outside and was called “lott wahrig” by many early settlers. Large paddles were used to stir the apples, and family members would take turns stirring.

According to an 1892 rural living book entitled, “Plant Chemistry”, apple butter “has become almost an article of necessity to the native inhabitant and no… farmer considers his fall work completed, if he has not made up his annual supply of this delicacy.”

Apple butter is usually made by boiling together apples and cider, until the mixture is reduced to about one-third the original volume. A small quanitity of ground cinnamon or other spice is then generally added for the purpose of flavoring; boiled cider, cider jelly, and sugar are also frequently mixed with the butter… after running through a colander to remove coarse particles, such as seeds, etc., the butter is sealed in jars.

Apple butter is a highly concentrated form of apple sauce produced by long, slow cooking of apples with cider or water to a point where the sugar in the apples caramelizes, turning the apple butter a deep brown. The concentration of sugar gives apple butter a much longer shelf life as a preserve than apple sauce.

Today, the production of apple butter is often associated with a community event, most often occurring in the fall at the end of the apple-harvest season. At many of these events, apple butter is cooked on-site in the traditional method, using huge copper kettles over open fires that are stirred for hours.

Berkeley Springs, West Virginia, has an annual apple butter festival, as does Grand Rapids, Ohio.  There is also an Apple Butter Stir Off held on the first weekend in October in Belpre, Ohio.

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