Making apple butter – a family tradition for 159 years

For the Hess-Miller-Wolfe family – fall means apple butter, and apple butter is DEFINITELY a family affair. This Lancaster County, PA family has been gathering for this project each October since 1852.

Wow! That’s a lot of apple butter!

Kevin’s brother Randy invited us for a peek into his wife’s long-standing family tradition. The party starts on Friday evening with apple cutting. Early on Saturday morning, some wake to start the first batch of apples cooking by 5:30 am. Using a specially made propane heater, apples and apple cider are brought to a boil. Of course, propane is a new, easier version – this family made their apple butter over wood fires for most of the 159 years.

Once it comes to a boil, it needs to be stirred constantly. Everyone takes a turn at the long wooden paddle, which has been used for generations and was designed to keep those stirring far from the hot fire.

The secret ingredient is Smokehouse apples, which originated in Lancaster County in the 1830s, and are in danger of becoming extinct. To 12 boxes of Smokehouse apples, 22 gallons of cider are added – this fills the copper pot just to the top. With family members each taking a hand on the stirring paddle, the mixture simmers and is reduced by half after 9-10 hours.

That’s a lot of stirring!

And while they’re waiting, there’s plenty of other stuff going on. A regular family reunion, everyone brings lots of food to this weekend long event. Ali tells me that she can’t wait for apple butter weekend because she knows she can expect her aunt’s favorite soups, casseroles, and desserts. Here she is demonstrating how to make “walking tacos” – you crunch up a bag of doritos, and add spicy meat, cheese, lettuce, salsa and sour cream. Mix it up with a fork and you’re off – walking around with a mess-free taco. Who knew?

The food went on and on, and just when the table started emptying out, more people came, laden with crockpots and pies, cookies, desserts, sandwiches. I watched Kevin and Randy eat four desserts each.

(Jeez, guys!)

In another garage, the host set up a fryer and made apple fritters, with apples quartered, and soaked in a traditional batter. Yes, as good as they look! Hot! With powdered sugar and cinnamon.

Every living generation was represented, from the youngest at 5 months, to Grandpa Wolfe at 101 (who looks even younger than the last time we saw him five years ago).  People streamed in and out – and many of the family’s 130-some members stopped by for some part of the weekend (Jenna! Lindsey! Did you make it??) And as you can imagine, family photos were staged all day long.

Here’s some of the finished product, spread on a cracker – thick, dense, sweet and absolutely delicious.

I was invited back! Same place next year, on the first weekend in October.

How many families still have these kinds of traditions? Not many. This is a slice of Americana that most of us never get to see. What a lucky group!

~ by kbosin on October 2, 2011.

8 Responses to “Making apple butter – a family tradition for 159 years”

  1. Love so many things about this post – the history, the family, the food. I actually considered making apple butter this weekend, but am glad I did not because nothing could beat this post … but I would kill for a fritter. So fun, thanks for sharing (and thanks to Randy and Judy for sharing)!

  2. Cynthia! It totally reminded me of your gigantic Chicago Irish family, with 14 aunts and uncles, and their associated hundreds of kin. Fantastic – you would fit right in!

  3. So glad you got to attend the big Wolf applebutter event. A family tradition that continues for 159 years really is something to brag about! Thanks for coming. Wish I could have had more time with you.

  4. Thanks for reminding us of the beauty of such an event. It’s easy to forget how special these times can be. So glad you could share in the experience.

  5. This is such a lovely post! Such a lovely tradition! It’s brilliant that this tradition has been going on for so many years and that it is still so very much alive today!! Fantastic! Thank you so much for sharing with us!! 🙂
    It makes my one-girl effort of six jars of spiced apple chutney and 3 1/2 jars of aplpe and blackberry jam seem like a whimpy little effort in comparrison to all that productivity!! 😉

  6. And how lucky WE are that you were there to experience it, and to share it all with us. I can almost taste that wonderful apple butter right now. How wonderful!

  7. What a wonderful story, Kathy! Thanks for posting.

  8. I’d like to be adopted by someone in the family just so I can participate! I LOVE IT!!!

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