While my career demands that you see my “fancier” side, you will undoubtedly notice that from time to time I happily stray back to my Southern roots. What with the fall weather and the snow this past weekend, my thoughts drifted back to yesteryear when one crisp autumn day my parents took me up to Glen and Elva Taylor’s for an “apple butter boiling.” I still remember vividly when Elva gathered all us kids around the pot and let us clean the kettle out with her homemade, yeasty, perfectly browned rolls. I think maybe it was the first time in my young life that I realized what living is all about. Seared into my memory is the thought of warm, smoky, seasoned apple butter on fresh baked bread. It still makes my mouth water some forty years later.
Before the days of refrigeration, apple butter was made as a means of preserving apples. Today it is made because it’s just plain good. Apple butter, for the uninitiated, is not butter at all – it is a dairy-free Southern delicacy made from apples, cinnamon, cloves and lots of sugar; boiled all day long in a large copper kettle over an open fire. What results is the most delicious buttery conserve ever to grace your palate.
However, preservation and deliciousness are not the only reasons for making apple butter. There was (and is) a whole festival of conviviality and tomfoolery behind this special Southern treat. Long before phones or the Internet—when communicating with someone had meaning and urgency—this simple act of preserving food for the coming winter became an act of community, sharing and bonding. It takes a lot of people to reap the goods: one whole day of people to cut or “snit” bushels of apples (providing a lot of valuable gossiping time) and a day of social gathering to follow. Once the fire is built and the mixture of seasoned apples is loaded into the copper kettle, it has to be stirred (and stirred… and stirred…) with a huge wooden paddle that takes two people to manage, and always in the same motion: “up and back; up and back; roooound; roooound.”
After the apples are churned into hot, buttery goo, it’s time for canning. Once every last drop of apple butter has found its way into a mason jar, it is distributed to everyone who helped. The end of the day turns into a party full of home-cooked food that everyone shares and the celebration continues into the night as the men gather to play music. They would always ask Elva Taylor to sing “I Overlooked an Orchid While Searching for a Rose,” and she would sing it with such heart-rending conviction that I know it must have influenced her son, Larry, who is now a beautiful singer himself. To this day the 4-H club in Page County, Virginia (where I’m from) gathers all its members to continue the tradition, making kettles full of apple butter which inevitably sell out in less time than it’ll take you to finish reading this post.
There’s one last reason people come together to make apple butter, and it may be the most important (or at least the sweetest): l’amour. Unless I’m mistaking my memory for a fairy tale, I believe my grandparents met at an apple butter boiling. I’ve mentioned that it takes two people to stir apple butter. As you can imagine the young menfolk of the town were anything but fools. During an apple boiling one year, my grandfather waited around for the right moment – not for the apple butter to be done – but for that one special moment when the pretty girl down the road, the one he’d had his eyes on, took her turn at stirring the cauldron. He waited and waited – and when the moment came where she took hold of that stirring paddle, he jumped at the chance to take up the other end. He took those precious seconds to get close to someone for whom he’d been pining – precious intimate seconds that would, in his case, last a lifetime.
This week’s secret ingredient is this: No man is an island and no one can make apple butter on his own. It takes a village, my friends. A village that stirs together stays together.
I hadn’t seen the Taylors in many years, but writing this post put them on my mind this weekend—Elva’s charm, Glen’s mischievous smile and cocked-sideways hat—so I just called my Dad to ask about them to find out that Glen passed away this weekend. His funeral is today. I hadn’t planned on honoring his memory in this posting, but here is to his life. I’m happy to relate, in his memory, the days and charms gone-by. Now it is our job to keep them alive.
Live. Be. Enjoy.