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Apples and Apple Butter: It Must Be Autumn

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It´s true, as Thomas Wolfe said, you can´t go home again. Home exists only in the memory. When you return to the old location it´s not the same as when you grew up there. People who remained in the area have changed, and some, of course, are gone.

The geographical area has undergone changes as well. Development pressures exist across the United States, with the loss of open and agricultural land being felt as keenly in Indiana (from where I´m writing) as in California. The pasture where I remember sledding in the winter is now flanked by stop signs and stop lights. The small farm—where I played in the root cellar with my cousins, the place where I was squirted in the face by a stream of hot milk straight from the hand-milked cow´s udder—is now owned by someone else, surrounded by the encroaching edges of town. Neatly-tended corn fields have fallen prey to ubiquitous sprawl; strips of fast food and discount super-stores line the highways.

However, one can become reacquainted with the area and people that were well-known in one´s youth. That´s why I attended an old-fashioned apple butter stir on the banks of the Elkhart River in Goshen, Indiana.

One cousin (from a family of eleven) continues this family tradition. Brothers, sisters and cousins now come from southern Indiana, Idaho, Arizona and California to stir apple butter in October. The apples and apple cider—Jonathan variety only—are purchased from a local grower.

According to the University of Illinois Cooperative Extension, there are 7500 varieties of apples grown around the world. The U.S. grows 2500 varieties, 100 varieties commercially. Michigan and California are two of the top apple-producing states in the U.S. (third and fourth, respectively, behind Washington and New York). Apples are grown in all 50 states of the U.S. with 36 states producing commercial crops. Commercial apple-growing states are concentrated in the upper eastern Midwest to New England and along the Pacific Coast.

Different geographic areas produce different varieties of apples. Some California apples—Braeburn and Sundowner, for example—originated in New Zealand and Australia. Japan is the source of genetic crosses such as the familiar Fuji, and the Shinsei and Senshu varieties. Gravenstein is the earliest-maturing apple in California, often ready to harvest in July. The Midwest produces varieties with names like Northern Spy and Jonathan-crosses Jonagold, Jonafree, Jonamac, and JonagoRed.

There´s an increased interest in historical or antique varieties of apples, especially for backyard fruit production. Antique varieties have beautiful names like Sweet Bough, Opalescent, Ozark Gold, Spitzenburg, Strawberry Chenango, Winter Banana, Ashmede Kernel, and Calville Blanc. One Tuolumne County Master Gardener grows an antique variety called Pink Pearl, with beautiful pink flesh that produces naturally pink applesauce. Unlike genetic crosses, or hybrids, historic antique varieties “breed true.” This means that a seed planted from a historic-variety apple will, after several years, produce a tree that grows the same kind of apples.

What to do with all these apples? Golden Delicious is best used fresh, in salads and pies (it takes two pounds of apples to make a pie). Jonathans are good eaten fresh and in salads, pies, sauce, and baked. They also make delicious cider. Northern Spy, grown in the Midwest, but apparently not in California, is good for salads, sauce, baking, and pies, but is not listed as a good eating apple. And, of course, Granny Smith is excellent in pies and as caramel apples.

Do you know the difference between cider and apple juice? Usually, cider is the fresh-pressed product of apples with no other processing (unpasteurized and unfiltered). It can eventually ferment. Apple juice is generally pasteurized and filtered to create a clear juice without pulp.

Here´s the recipe for Midwestern “Super-Sized” Apple Butter:

• 40 gallons apple cider (purists recommend that cider be pressed from Jonathan apples only)

• 4 bushels Jonathan apples

In a 30-inch copper cauldron, over a hot oakwood fire, simmer apple cider until it is reduced by half (start fire by 9:00 a.m.).

Sometime between noon and 3:00 p.m., using ten relatives armed with knives and hand-cranked apple peelers, peel and core apples. Add apples to simmering cider.

Cook, stirring constantly with a wooden hand-made paddle, for approximately six hours. Invite 100 relatives and fire up the barbecues in a freezing-cold gale wind under leaden skies. Feed relatives hotdogs, hamburgers and potluck food. Allow them to take turns stirring apple butter.

When apple butter no longer contains “snits” (Pennsylvania Dutch for bits of food—in this case, apple), ladle small amount onto a paper plate. If the “puddle” can be divided by a knife blade and doesn´t run back together, it´s done.

Remove from heat, using two brawny cousins and one four-by-four to lift cauldron from fire.

Immediately ladle hot apple butter into clean jars under a now-calm-but-dark sky dotted with scudding clouds and a crescent moon. Cap with lids and rings in assembly line fashion.

Dip left-over hotdog buns into last bits of apple butter in kettle and enjoy. Sit around dying fire talking and singing old songs.

Yields 132 pints. HAPPY HARVEST! See you in the garden.

Rebecca Miller-Cripps is the Tuolumne County Master Gardener program coordinator and grew up, learning to garden, in Indiana.