Apple Butter Making: A Tradition Preserved

For November the Western Illinois Museum’s “Artifact of the Month” is an apple butter kettle and wooden stirring paddle, used over 100 years ago to make traditional apple butter in the Macomb area.

Making apple butter goes back to colonial times when our ancestors needed to preserve food to get them through the long, cold winters. Today apple butter making carries on in family traditions in this region and in festivals held all over the nation.

Donated in 1982 by Julian LeMaire (died in 1995) of Macomb, the apple butter kettle and stirring paddle at the museum were in the LeMaire family for generations.   Going all the way back to 1882, the family used the kettle and stirrer to make apple butter.

Another local resident with a long-standing tradition of apple butter making in his family is Gerald White, of Colchester.  White recalls making apple butter with his grandmother. “My grandmother, Anna White of Tennessee, told me she remembered as a little girl, watching her grandmother stir the apple butter.”  His grandmother also told White about the tradition of placing silver dollars in the bottom of the kettle. The metallic scraping noise of the coins told the stirrer that the wooden paddle was scraping the bottom of the kettle thus ensuring the apples at the bottom would not burn. When the apple butter finished cooking, Anna White handed out the silver dollars to her grandchildren.

When Anna White passed away, the White family kettle was handed down to her grandson, Gerald White.  To continue his family tradition, White began holding apple butter making parties in his yard.  He has been having apple butter making parties for family, friends and neighbors, every year since 1978 with only a few exceptions.  This year there were 96 people sharing in the making of the apple butter at the daylong party.  At this event, White tells his grandchildren the stories his grandmother told him about making apple butter, so the tradition is handed down to the sixth generation of Whites in McDonough County.

Making apple butter is straightforward.  To start off, you need bushels and bushels of apples. Traditionally, families went to the orchard and picked all the apples necessary, even bruised and fallen apples were used.  Then, the men would take some of the apples to the cider mill to be turned into cider.  The women took the rest of the apples home, where an old-fashioned apple-peeler peeled the bushels of apples.

Next, the apples were cored and quartered in a process called snitting, (from the Pennsylvania Dutch word, “snitz” which is a dried chunk of apple-it comes from the German word “schnitzen” meaning to carve or slice).  The snits or apple chunks are then ready for the kettle. Cutting up the bushels of apples could take a long time and the Pennsylvania Dutch turned this time into “Schnitzing parties”, gathering to socialize, and making the repetitive work fun.

To continue the apple butter making process, the cider made from the just picked apples is poured into the copper kettle sitting over the outside fire. Next added are the apples snits to the kettle.

A good fire is another critical component.  The fire needs to be hot enough to keep a many gallon container full of liquid and apple chunks bubbling. Hardwood is used because it makes coals instead of flames, making a hot, long-lasting fire. As important as the fire, is the way the apples are cooked – they must be stirred constantly or the apples might burn at the bottom of the kettle.  That is why the wooden stirring paddle is an important part of the procedure.

Specially designed to facilitate the apple butter cooking process, the wooden paddle has a long handle so the person stirring does not need to be too close to the fire. Drilled into the bottom part of the stirring paddle are a number of holes, these holes ensure the apple pulp is comprehensively agitated with each stir of the paddle.

Many traditions are associated with stirring the kettle.  Some locales advocate a figure-eight pattern for stirring; some say a straight back and forth approach is best, others say that the stirrer must walk around the kettle while stirring. Whatever style stirring employed, the most important part is that the bottom of the kettle is always agitated so that the apples do not scorch, because even a few scorched apples can ruin an entire batch.  Every recipe for apple butter emphasizes the importance of constant stirring.

In addition, not only is constant stirring necessary, but the apples also require a long, slow cooking time.  The process took anywhere from eight to 12 hours, depending on the fire and the apples. Usually, cooking the apples began around dawn and finished up near dusk. Traditionally, many hands shared this time-consuming labor with families, neighbors, and friends gathering around the fire and everyone taking a turn stirring.

Sharing big, hard work was a feature of pioneer life.  Barn raisings, quilting bees, husking corn or peeling apples and stirring the apple butter were all types of work that could not be done by one person or even a small group and help was needed.  Sharing the workload brought together families, friends, and neighbors.  The making of apple butter is symbolic of the communal pioneer spirit of ‘many hands make light labor’, and helping your neighbor to get the work done.  Sharing workloads help to build communities and community spirit and it made the hard country life more bearable.  Making the activity into a social gathering and fun for all was as important to pioneers as getting the work accomplished.  Apple butter making became something that the pioneers looked forward to each year at the end of harvest time.

To finish the apple butter cooking process, the liquid boils off, the mixture cooks down, and more and more apples are added. The butter begins to grow thicker and darker. Apple butter is more concentrated than applesauce because of its long, slow cooking; this gives it a longer shelf life.

After about eight hours of continuous stirring, certain spices are added, such as cinnamon, nutmeg, or cloves, and sometimes, depending on local tastes, a sweetener such as white or brown sugar, honey, or molasses.  Putting sugar in is called “adding the money”. After the additions of flavorings, there is usually a little more cook time to let the flavors blend.

Three characteristics indicate when the apple butter has finished cooking.  Number one is the color.  The apple butter should have a deep, red-brown color when it is fully cooked.  The natural sugar in the apples caramelizes turning the apple butter brown. Number two is the consistency.  There is no butter in apple butter – it refers to its consistency, it should be as smooth and creamy as butter.  Number three is the “weepiness” of the apple butter, that is, to test for doneness a spoonful is put on a plate, how much liquid “weeps” from the butter is noted, there should be little to no liquid “weeping”.  Another doneness test some like to do is to put a spoonful of apple butter on a saucer, turn it upside down and if it sticks to the saucer – then the apple butter is done.

Preserved now at the Western Illinois Museum the copper kettle  illustrates a tradition that began in the early days of McDonough County and survives today.  Symbolic of a bygone era when hard work and fun times were intertwined, the apple butter kettle, and the wooden stirring paddle preserve a piece of our social and culinary heritage.