Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Black Cauldrons Brew

Nearly every fall someone in our farmland would decide to make apple butter "the old fashioned way". A few families would gather in someone's kitchen and prepare about ten bushels of apples (Golden and/or Red Delicious).

The weary teenage daughters would be given the job of peeling those damn apples, all done in one day.  The next day, their hands will show the tiny cuts, and the hands would be cramping.

Meanwhile, the experienced farm wives would be cooking down the apples into a lumpy applesauce.  Why not purchase the store-bought sauce?  It was NOT DONE back then, besides which not many stores carried it in the late 50s to mid-60s.

A large wood fired caldron boils sugar maple tree sap at the Dodge Nature Center in West Saint Paul, MN
Source: Minnesota maple syrup
The next day the husbands would have built up a fire of a slow-burning hardwood, some wood that I guess has magic powers.  The fire would get to the hot ember stage.  By then they would have set up a rented cauldron as shown below.

Why rented?  Those things were handed down from generation to generation, and were seldom produced anymore, as the kettles were darn expensive, especially since the interior was  copper.  It had to be copper, because copper did not impart any metallic taste.

Large Copper Cauldren Wrought Iron Handles ~ 19th Century Apple Butter Pot ~ Hammered
source: $300
This is a rather small cauldron--the actual size would be much larger.
Then the dishpans of the cooked-down apples were poured into the cauldron. This cauldron
would be stirred constantly with a paddle that reached
to the very bottom of the very large
The paddle was made of wood, although the handle may have been made of something else, 
that would not leach flavor into the apple butter as it cooked down.  The apples cooked slowly...All stinking day, from early sunrise to almost sunset.


Source: Bubble and boil

At some point the farm women would bring out the secret ingredients used to sweeten and flavor the apple mixture, without which would result in a fairly sour and miserable runny applesauce.  Each of the women would agree on the ingredients.  

My mother preferred "Red Hots", a candy that still exists.  It is dark red, with spicy cinnamon, almost hot, taste.  This gave the apples a great color and sweetness, which would be augmented by tons of white cane sugar.

Then, at another point during the cooking, my grandmother (a true matriarch) would retrieve old silver dollars, which were true silver from the 1800s. 

They were used by her family, from long ago.  They tossed these five or six silver dollars in the cauldron and stir the apple mixture with the paddle.

The silver dollars scraped the bottom of the cauldron, preventing the now-thick mixture from burning, and ruining the whole two days' worth of work.

I was never in on this ritual, although I observed it from the porch, as the Apple Butter Cooking was done at a nippy time of year. I wanted to go back into the kitchen.  But there was a lot of laughter and low talk.
The daughters often speculated
about this, even suspecting some sort
of magic spells were being
chanted.  Silly.

At this point in the post, I realize how long it is.

  Read on if you want, or leave it for a later time.  

It is not going anywhere.

I really did not want to go into the kitchen, for every flat surface was completely covered with clear Mason jars (donated by the wives), an almost uncountable amount.  On the
range top were large (and I mean LARGE) pots of boiling water.

Ball 62000 Regular Mouth 32oz. Mason Canning Jar with Lids, Case of 12, Refrigerate up to 3 weeks, Store up to 1 year, 12 Ball Regular Mouth Glass Preserving Jars, 12 Ball Regular Mouth Lids with Bands, Step-by-Step instructions on bottom of package, Choose from Bread & Butter Pickle Mix or Kosher Dill Pickle Mix (620-00 62-000 Jarden Home Brands)
The daughters' job was to hand-wash/scrub the

 Mason jars, thoroughly

clean inside and out.  Once scrubbed each jar was
examined by one of wives and deemed clean or not.

The Jars were placed carefully into the LARGE pots

 and sterilized.  I do not know how long the jars had to be in there before being sterilized.

  Anyway, the jars were carefully removed and placed 
upside down on sparkling white, absolutely bacteria-
free dish towels.

Meanwhile the farmers were taking turns stirring the 
cauldron continuously.  The mixture was thickening.

  And finally, each woman would spoon small
amounts into small bowls, taste the stuff and decide
if it was thick enough. 

The daughters had abandoned the process, and were 
watching television. But not for long...

The wives began carrying in sterilized dishpans of the
apple butter and set up and assembly line of filling 
the sterilized jars, using large funnels.  

The two-
pieced sterilized Mason jar lids were slapped on the 
filled jars 

and passed onto the daughters, who used all their 
mighty teenage strength to
tighten the lids.

The jars may or may not have been returned to the 
boiling water, I do not know.  But the all important 
event was to watch and hear the "ping" 
which meant the apple butter was now vacuum 
The wives plopped wearily in chairs or on the porch 
to laugh and tell stories.  

The men scrubbed out the 
cauldron, retrieved the silver dollars (every single one 
of them!) 
and drove into town to return the cauldron.  
Not all of 
them needed to go, but I suspect they wanted to 

as did the daughters.

The jars were divvied out equally once the jars of 
precious apple butter had cooled enough.  

They all 
laughed and packed up to leave.

That left one mother and her daughters
who was me and my sister Mary (when she
was old enough).  

knew, oh I knew that the next job 
would be to clean 
the kitchen.  

Mom had exacting expectations on 
"clean the kitchen"
actually meant. 

Almost every year this was done until farm wives and 
husbands decided it
was not worth all that work.

Plus, the daughters were heading off to college.

Praise be to God.

Now, I could tell you how to make a small batch of apple butter using a crock pot, but you can figure that out for yourselves.  If you are reading these words or have gotten this far, you are amazing.


  1. That sounds like a lot of work.
    Red Hots! That would add some hot spice.

    1. It was a tremendous amount of work, I can tell you. The Red Hots were a modern addition to the old time-honored ways which used lots of cinnamon and other spices, which were magic by nature and not shared with me.

  2. Well I made it to the end...and I HAVE made apple butter from scratch (although not with a cauldron over an open fire) and I'm here to tell you the process is not magic but the taste sure is.

    1. Jars of apple butter lined up in the larder meant we would never be without joy.

  3. I suspect we of a certain age have apple butter stories and to spare. Mine are not so awful as your, though equally tedious. She also ran her finger around the rim of every Mason jar, checking for chips. Chipped jar tops would not seal with regular mason jar lids. But, they must be used! They were set aside and topped with rubber rings and zinc screw on tops with that glass liner. It still had to pop to seal.

    1. Then you are part of the Kingdom of Mighty Apple Butter Makers.

      You are correct about the chipped edges and the rubber rings and zinc tops. That was another step in the process.

  4. Wow, after reading all of the work it takes, I appreciate the grocery store that much more lol

    1. The store-bought stuff will be good (if you buy the apple butter from a farm market off the side of the road).

  5. I think it sounds like it would be fun! Love the picture painted from the story. :)

    1. There are recipes for making apple butter with crock pots. I used to do this in my classroom. A whole lot of work, I tell you.

    2. My youngest child's 1st grade teacher brought in crock pots for recipes, but she didn't make apple butter. I wish she would've... just so I could have tried it. I was thrilled w/her plan though, it was a good apple-filled day. :)

  6. I have a jar of home made apple butter in my larder, a present from an old lady in the village.
    Round here we still make such delicacies, incl. plum butter and apple cheese, and all the jams and jellies.

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    2. I am at my daughter's today using her computer.

      You must share recipes! Plum butter must take lots of work, considering how bitter the skin is! Apple cheese?

  7. What an interesting account of old-time cooking. I know we had many apple trees in our garden when I grew up, and apple sauce I'm pretty sure, but I don't remember anything like this.

    Thank you for your kind comment about my post. I haven't done any for a while because I thought I lost my ability to write. Due to my foggy brain. So it meant a lot.

    1. Maybe this is a Midwest thing or maybe from the Amish areas, but apple butter was appreciated.
      I enjoy your blog posts so much. Enjoying watching Faith grow up.

  8. People worked a lot back in the day just to eat and live. Sounds like hard work, but the sense of community, of belonging, must have been beautiful. We are so much more removed these days, just rushing about our lives. Not that I'd want to go back to cooking from scratch, okay maybe once a year only for this great sense of community. Oh, and how good that must've tasted!

    1. Writing this post is inspiring me to buy some apples, use my crock pot, and make a few jars. The taste was so wonderful that it was not unknown for someone to sneak a small bowl of it as a snack.

  9. Not at all silly. Of course there were magic spells chanted!
    I would have thought an apple butter recipe would have actual butter in it, like lemon butter does. I like the cauldron! I remember my mum making jams in the big aluminium jam pot with a pouring spout on one side. She would have glass marbles dancing about on the bottom of the pot to prevent sticking and each year after the jams were safely in jars, the marbles were carefully washed and dried, then hidden away where the boys couldn't find them. Playing 'marbles' was a big thing in schoolyards back then.

  10. Sounds like it was well worth the effort! Oh, the wonderful conversations they must have had! You really get to know a person after spending several hours over a hot cauldron together.


  11. Sounds like a lovely ritual for those ladies. Much more in touch with reality than modern "girls' nights out!" They had some regard for the environment back then whether they called it that or not, and also for their families' inner environments which are not made healthier by ingesting all manner of chemical additives from store bought food in cans and jars! Lovely trip back in time Susan!


Go won' t hurt...I'd love to hear what you think!