Although many apple-lovers enjoy a spread of apple butter on their toast or an apple butter old fashioned, that's typically as far as it goes with this condiment. Some might even make their own in a crockpot or slow cooker. However, in Appalachia and the South, the love and tradition surrounding apple butter has stayed strong despite modern cooking methods and convenience. Appalachian apple-butter parties have been going since colonial times and are about way more than just apples.
These legendary parties begin with more apples than you can imagine, often about 400 pounds. The process of transforming these apples into apple butter is a group effort, taking a total time of 6 to 8 hours from start to finish. At an apple butter party, you'll find family, friends, neighbors and church members, all there with the same goal- to make enough apple butter to last until next year.
Traditional Apple Butter Making
It starts with tediously peeling, coring and chopping the apples into small pieces. The attendees chat to pass the time, and you might see a few beers and hear the low twang of country music in the background.
After a few hours of prep time, the many apples are reduced to small pieces and stored in buckets, ready to go on the kettle, which is often a 40-gallon copper kettle or multiple smaller ones. The kettle is placed on the fire, above the flames but not touching them.
At this point, the apples are put into the pot, mixed in with pounds and pounds of sugar, and stirred continuously until ready. Everyone takes turns stirring for ten or fifteen minutes, as the mixture has to be stirred continuously to keep it from burning. The secret to stirring is using a figure-eight motion. Although apple butter recipes are different in each family, some throw in some cinnamon oil, or even Red Hots candy, at the end for an extra pop of flavor. Since this part of the process takes about 6 hours, no one leaves an apple butter party as a stranger.
To check if the apple butter is ready, spoon a bit onto a plate. If there's a ring of water around the apple butter, it needs to cook longer. However, once enough water has evaporated to make the perfect texture, the apple butter is taken off the heat to be stored in mason jars.
As soon as the kettle is taken off, the apple butter party attendees form two lines, pouring the apple butter into jars, then sealing them firmly. Everyone who participates in the process gets to take home jars and jars of homemade apple butter to enjoy throughout the year.
The First Apple Butter Parties
Apple butter parties began as a way to preserve apples, which grow in abundance in the mountains of Appalachia. Early settlers enjoyed fresh apples throughout the fall, but as it got colder, they needed a way to extend their shellfire. Apple butter and its concentrated sugars was far more effective than dried apples, and a tradition was born.
Back then, there were around 1,600 apple varieties throughout Appalachia. Today, only about 600 remain, but each family still has a preferred apple variety to use for their DIY apple butter. Some go for a mix, while others keep it pure with one favored variety.
Although in modern times, we don't have the same need to preserve our food through traditional methods, communities in Appalachia continue the tradition, and older generations teach the youths how old-school apple butter is made.
Although the process is time consuming and labor-intensive, with a ridiculous amount of prep time and cook time, it's a beloved tradition that creates community and provides a window into the past. Plus, those who attend apple butter parties swear that the product tastes better than a store-bought or slow cooker apple butter, because the traditional method involves cooking apples at a much higher temperature, resulting in a richer flavor.
Apple Butter in the Modern Day
For those who don't have access to a 40-gallon kettle and 400 pounds of apples, there are apple butter fundraisers and festivals throughout the fall that provide a taste of the culture and tradition surrounding this fruit, many of which will have all of the apple foods you love like apple cider and caramel apples.
Or, you can make your own with this easy recipe, involving 3 lbs apples, 1/4 teaspoon ground cloves, 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon, 1/4 teaspoon ground allspice, and 1/5 cups sugar. It's the perfect thing to do with your boon after apple picking!
If you're not sure what to do with your apple butter, you really can't go wrong. Apple butter is essentially just extra-delicious, super smooth and flavorful applesauce. From sweet potato casserole to crumb cake to cheesecake, it makes everything better. Or, keep it simple with apple butter toast at brunch or a brie apple butter appetizer.
09Although modern technology has created easy, fast cooking methods, we don't see apple butter parties ending anytime soon. And if you're ever in backcountry Appalachia in the fall, you might just hear the sound of merriment and country music and smell the rich scent of cooking apples wafting your way.
This post was originally published on September 17, 2021.