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Apple Butter Memories

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By Jene Hedden

     As we move swiftly toward autumn, I find myself remembering the yearly ritual of making apple butter at my grandmother’s house.

     The tradition began each fall when the apples were ripe but not yet falling to the ground, for apples on the ground were fair game for Grandma Keltner’s chickens who considered them a rare treat. 

     Like many chores of that time, apple butter making was a job that involved the whole family. The muscles of the men were needed for the heavy lifting and the finesse of the women was needed for the finer details of the job.

   Apple butter making day began when the heavy boxes of blue Mason jars were brought down from the attic to be carefully unpacked.  Grandma Keltner then carefully inspected each jar for cracks and chips since the smallest chip on the rim of a jar or a dent in one of the zinc jar lids might prevent a good seal and result in spoiled apple butter. 

     After inspection, the jars were carefully washed and rinsed in hot water until they sparkled like jewels, then turned upside down on clean dish towels on the kitchen table to drain.

     While the jars were being inspected and washed in the house, some of the men headed down to the spring behind Grandma’s house to get buckets of fresh spring water while the rest of us were sent out with baskets and tubs to begin picking the apples.

     We kids picked the apples from the lower branches, grownups picked from the higher ones and if necessary a ladder was brought out for the fruit hanging at the top of the tree. As we worked, the last of the summer bees buzzed around the rotting apples on the ground and the late summer bugs sang in the dew wet grass.  We talked and laughed as we harvested the fruit, and with everyone working together it didn’t take long to fill all the baskets and buckets.

     After all the ripe apples were picked, they were brought up to the porch for Grandma Keltner's inspection. An apple with a blemish or a worm hole or two was seldom discarded. Only the apples that were over-ripe or under-ripe or beginning to rot were tossed to the happy chickens. The rest were dunked and washed in the fresh spring water that had been poured into big black iron kettles in the yard.

     I remember well my grandmother and the other women of the family sitting around the iron kettles, pulling the bobbing apples from the fresh, cold spring water and peeling them on newspapers in their laps. They carefully removed any bruised areas and cut out each worm-hole…often finding a lively worm inside. Then they patiently peeled each apple leaving the peelings curling and spiraling in their laps to be tossed to the now ecstatic chickens or munched on by hungry kids.

     The women worked quickly, deftly cutting the fruit into thin slices and dropping them into cold fresh water with a few drops of lemon juice or cider vinegar added to it to keep them from turning brown.

     When all the apples were cleaned, peeled and sliced, they were brought into the kitchen, drained, given a final rinse and put into a large metal pan on Grandma’s “Warm Morning” wood stove. 

     As the apples were “cooked down” slowly into applesauce, we inquisitive children were warned to stay away from the stove, as the hot bubbling mixture was notorious for erupting like so much sweet lava and leaving a nasty burn if you weren’t careful and got too close.

     After the apples were sufficiently softened, sorghum, allspice, cinnamon and cloves from the Greensburg grocery were added and the mixture was simmered a while longer on the lowest fire until all the wonderful flavors were melded.

     Then the sweet hot mixture was carefully spooned into the blue Mason jars, the rims wiped with a clean tea towel, the lids screwed on tightly and the jars lined up on the kitchen table to cool.  

     Once the apple butter cooled, the jars were carefully carried out to the cellar house where they were lined up on the cool shelves beside other jars full of Keltner summer bounty.

     It was a job well done by the whole family...a group endeavor...a time to bond and celebrate the harvest and each other.

     For we all knew that in a few short months, on some cold winter morning when the snow lay deep under the apple trees, we would all be gathered around Grandma’s kitchen table for her farm-fresh eggs, home-made sausage and her hot home-baked biscuits right out of the oven.

      And as we slathered those biscuits with her fresh home-churned butter and topped them with big dollops of the apple butter we had all worked together to create, we were literally enjoying the fruits of our labors…that sweet, warm, fruity, spicy apple butter that was the essence of summer and Keltner family tradition in a blue Mason jar.

Grandma Keltner’s Apple Butter Recipe
   9 quarts of Applesauce made from cooked and peeled apples
  2 tablespoons of ground cinnamon 
  1 teaspoon ground cloves   
  1/2 teaspoon of allspice
   2 to 4 cups sugar or sorghum
   Sugar is optional - some people find it sweet enough for their taste without adding any sweetener.

Edited by Paula Hurtt