Spice of Life: homemade apple butter, the traditional way

Posted by Gretchen Whittington on 12/11/23 1:29 PM

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The air smells so strongly of cinnamon and apples that I feel like I’ve stepped into a holiday supply store. I’m still outdoors, though: in the middle of my backyard. 

In front of me, someone is stirring a blackened 30-gallon kettle hung over an open fire. It’s filled with a yellow-orange sauce that steams and bubbles cheerily, and I know immediately that it’s where the spicy smell is coming from.

“Is that enough cinnamon?” my dad asks, holding a plate out to my uncle and sister. My uncle dips the tip of his pinky in the bit of sauce that’s on the plate, then tastes it.

“Needs more cloves.”

“No, the cloves are fine. I think it’s just about right,” says my great-aunt, leaning back in her chair.

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It’s a scene very familiar to me, and one that I’ve gotten to enjoy semi-annually ever since I can remember. Today, my family and I are making our renowned spicy apple butter.

Apple butter, for those that aren’t familiar, is a spread made from highly concentrated applesauce, sugar, and spice extracts. Some families make it at home in crockpots, and some country stores and large condiment manufacturers sell it in grocery stores. None of these compare to apple butter made the traditional way, though—especially Whittington apple butter.

Some of our friends call it “liquid Christmas” and “Christmas in a Whittington Story (2 of 4)jar.” We put it on toast, on waffles, and some of our relatives even put it on salmon. And the making time itself? It’s a holiday, a tradition, and a time for community that changes the tone of the fall season for us. 

We pulled down the old kettle last week, dark and dirty. It’s made out of pure copper, but the outside is filthy, covered in hours of ash from dozens of apple butter makings. The kettle itself is at least a hundred years old, and it shows plenty of wear for its age. My grandmother bought it in the 80s, and the older woman she bought it from claimed she remembered her family using it when she was a little girl.

Over that time, a couple of spots on the bottom have been soldered back together. Despite our best efforts, the old kettle has gotten a few dents and scratches over the years. But it’s our kettle, and it’s what we will be using yet again for another year of making apple butter again.

And after four years, my family had another chance to make it over this past Fall Break. 

When the day for the making came, we were up at 7 a.m. getting everything ready: washing the kettle and stirrer, making the fire (which involved a propane torch, a burn trail through our yard, and only a little bit of lighter fluid), and getting out the applesauce.

Whittington Story (3 of 4)My family made the applesauce homemade from Golden Delicious apples they picked in a local orchard. Over the span of a few weeks, my family cleaned, cut, cooked, and milled all five bushels themselves. That way, we knew the applesauce would be made our way—local, semi-traditional, and with quality in mind.

Then the boiling began—the cooking over an open fire, the stirring, the conversations. People came over in shifts throughout the course of the day—32 in all—to watch and help out. But, while they come for the entire process of making liquid Christmas, the conversations are the part they remember most fondly.

“Maybe you should take him to a county fair to win some money at an apple-pie-eating contest,” a friend says, discovering that one of the little boys ate four of the doughnuts his parents brought to share.

“What kinda car is that?” a relative asks, pointing to another cousin’s shiny green roadster parked in our driveway.

“At least we’re not making it in a hurricane,” my uncle says, hinting at yet another family story to apple butter newcomers.

Tradition, individualism, and the crisis of freedom

My hometown, Winchester, Virginia, was once known as the apple capital of the world. We had migrant harvesters and apples flooding the streets for weeks each fall and plenty of apple recipes and sweets to boot. We still have an Apple Blossom Festival every year at the end of April, and Martinsburg, West Virginia hosts an Apple Harvesting Festival.

Churches in the area have historically used this abundance of apples to make apple butter. Making it over an open fire worked as a great way to connect congregations over a task, and the product could be sold as a fundraiser for ministry. Whittington Story (4 of 4)

But my family doesn’t sell apple butter. For us, we make it for memories. The apple butter itself is a great, spicy, delicious benefit—but in the end, those times of connection are what we all look forward to most. People ask us year after year when we’re making it again. Geographically-distant relatives make time to drive all the way to Winchester for our apple butter making, and we plan for weeks to make it come about.

And at the end of the day, when all the jarring is done, those of us still left at the kettle-side go to IHOP to enjoy the fruit of our labor.

There, at the big table in the back, with family and friends crammed in shoulder to shoulder, we relive the day while spreading the fresh apple butter on our pancakes. We prepare to split ways again, knowing another batch of apple butter is safely jarred.

Then we talk about the next time we’ll all get back together to do it all again—and we taste the spice of the Whittington life.

Learn about Classical Liberal Arts at Patrick Henry College


 Patrick Henry College exists to glorify God by challenging the status quo in higher education, lifting high both faith and reason within a rigorous academic environment; thereby preserving for posterity the ideals behind the "noble experiment in ordered liberty" that is the foundation of America.


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