BENTONVILLE, Va. — The crisp and sweet York apple is without a doubt the favorite in Warren County, Virginia. But you won’t find any in Mary Digges’ apple butter, and for good reason. Its distinct lopsided shape means it doesn’t sit straight in the tabletop crank peeler. And when you’re battling to skin 10 bushels (about 400 pounds) of apples in a few hours, a trusty peeler, and at least a dozen good friends, is the only path to victory.
The friends are gathered by the Turner family, who have thrown an annual apple butter-making party here in Bentonville for some 40 years. Back in the day, children were not invited. The drinking started early and ended late. And it wasn’t unusual to find the apple butter still cooking and needing to be jarred at 2 a.m.
Then 26 years ago, Digges took charge of production. Now, the apple butter die-hards arrive by 11 a.m. and set up an assembly line at three picnic tables, covered in red-and-white-checked plastic tablecloths. Over the course of several hours of chitchat and a steady hum of country music, apples are peeled, cored and chopped into 2-inch “snits,” then dumped into white plastic buckets.
A few feet away, volunteers led by Digges’ husband, Linwood Burton, keep the fire going and stir two copper kettles with a long wooden paddle, swirling the snits into the bubbling, swampy stew. In the rare moments when the tireless Burton is not stirring himself, he instructs a younger generation on technique: when to add the next batch of apples, how to make the “crazy 8” motion that keeps the apples from sticking to the bottom of the kettle. “Place the paddle against your hip and rock back and forth,” he says. “It’s like slow dancing.” These days, when all goes well, 25 gallons of apple butter is ready by 9 p.m.
You might expect that the tradition of making apple butter — outdoors and by the vat — would have disappeared long ago.
And yet the annual apple-butter gatherings survive. Throughout Appalachia and much of the South, families congregate in their backyards to stock up for the season, while churches, schools and social clubs join forces to make apple butter for community fundraisers.
“I remember being a kid and going through town and everything would smell like burnt molasses and cinnamon,” says chef Travis Milton, who grew up in the mountains of southwest Virginia and is now culinary director and chef at Nicewonder Farm and Vineyards in Bristol, Virginia. “I assumed all that would be gone. But the culture is still vibrant.”
As with most historic foodways, the tradition of making apple butter began as a way to fill a need. Apples thrive in the mountains; perhaps counterintuitively, a slight elevation protects them from frost damage. Early settlers were keen to preserve the abundance. Fresh apples could be stored in a cold house or sliced and dried. But apple butter, with its concentrated sugars, was a powerful way to extend shelf life before refrigeration. Each fall, families would assemble to make fun of the hard work of putting up. “Apple butter making is like a hog killing used to be,” said Eddie Williams, the proprietor of Williams Orchard in Flint Hill, Virginia. “It was a social event, but it was also productive.”
At one time there were as many as 1,600 varieties of apples in southern and central Appalachia. Today, according to Slow Food’s Renewing America’s Food Traditions Alliance, more than 600 remain. There are Adam and Eves and Arkansas Blacks, Limbertwigs, Maiden’s Blush, and Yorks. No wonder the alliance’s founder, ethnobotanist Gary Paul Nabhan, has dubbed the region “Apple-achia.”
Which apples are the best for apple butter depends on whom you ask. Milton likes Arkansas Blacks because they have a balance of starch and tart sweetness. Williams insists on a mix and recommends Yorks, Winesaps and Golden Delicious. The disagreement, says cookbook author and Appalachian historian Ronni Lundy, reflects the region’s geography and its character. “One apple grew well on one part of a property, and another grew well on another, while the neighbors maybe grew different varieties entirely. It bred a kind of individualism,” she says. “Your family had your apple and you liked it better than someone else’s.”
For Kendra Honaker’s family in Bristol, the right apple for nearly a century has been the Stayman. That was the variety her great-grandparents grew in nearby Scott County. One year, when the two bushels of Staymans from the local orchard weren’t up to snuff, Honaker’s mother drove 85 miles to Asheville, North Carolina, to replace them. “It’s serious business in our household,” Honaker said with a laugh.
The family has not missed a year making apple butter since Honaker’s great-grandmother, Nellie Mae Pullon, launched the tradition in the early 1920s. The clan gathers the day before to peel and chop; then the next morning, they build a fire in the backyard and start cooking. The Stayman rule is not the only one that is observed with reverence. The cooking vessel must be her great-grandfather Nelson’s 10-gallon kettle. Lots of sugar also is a must, as is a generous dose of cinnamon oil to cut the sweet. Each year, the family puts the same 1895 silver dollar in the bottom of the kettle because Nellie Mae insisted that it keeps the apple butter from sticking.
If there’s any debate about the rules, it circles the question of Red Hots. Yes, those Red Hots. Starting in the 1950s, many mountain families ingeniously used the old-timey hard cinnamon candy to spice up their apple butter when cinnamon sticks or powder were unavailable or too expensive. Honaker’s grandfather, Ray, was a fan, and he used to sneak a small bag into the pot when no one was looking.
Is apple butter made the traditional way really better than one from a slow cooker ? Jeremiah Langhorne, chef-owner of the Dabney in Washington, says some of it is the romance. When you open the jar, you remember the smoke rising into the crisp fall air and the fun of catching up with friends, he explained. But the process — eight or more hours of stirring — also means that the apple butter stays at a rolling boil, a much higher temperature than it would in a slow cooker, so it produces a richer, more complex flavor.
So what exactly do you do with 100 or so jars of apple butter? Stick it on a cheese plate, put it in marinades for chicken or pork, or spoon a giant dollop into the batter for apple cake. Or you really can’t beat apple butter French toast. If you’re a bourbon lover, a dab of apple butter sands the sharp edges of a classic Old-Fashioned.
Slow Cooker Apple Butter
Active: 1 hour 30 minutes
Total: 11 to 12 hours, depending on how fast the apples break down
80 servings (makes 10 cups)
6 pounds apples, peeled, cored and cut into 1-inch chunks
2 cups sugar
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
½ teaspoon ground nutmeg
½ teaspoon ground cardamom
½ teaspoon kosher salt
¼ teaspoon ground clove
Place the apples in the slow cooker and cook, uncovered, on high for 1 hour.
Cover the slow cooker and cook on low for 8 to 10 hours. The apples will have lost at least a third of their volume and should break and crumble when you poke them with a fork. Taste and add the sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg, cardamom, salt and clove and stir well to combine.
Turn the heat back up to high, cover and cook for 1 hour more. Taste and adjust the spices, then puree the apples with an immersion or regular blender, or in a food processor to make a velvety smooth apple butter.
Storage: To put up apple butter long-term, ladle it into sterilized glass jars and follow the jar manufacturer’s directions. Otherwise, ladle the butter into clean jars, cover and refrigerate for up to 8 weeks.
Nutrition (based on a 2-tablespoon serving): Calories: 40; Total Fat: 0 g; Saturated Fat: 0 g; Cholesterol: 0 mg; Sodium: 5 mg; Carbohydrates: 10 g; Dietary Fiber: 0 g; Sugars: 9 g; Protein: 0 g.
Adapted from “Victuals” by Ronni Lundy (Clarkson Potter, 2016).
Chai-Spiced Apple Butter Cake
Active: 25 minutes
Total: 1 hour 20 minutes
8 to 10 servings
Cooking spray or unsalted butter, for greasing the pan
2 cups flour, plus more for dusting the pan
2 teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon kosher salt
2½ teaspoons chai masala
2 large eggs
¾ cup sugar
1 cup apple butter
½ cup plain whole milk Greek yogurt
1/3 cup vegetable oil or another neutral oil
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
½ cup chopped walnuts (optional)
Preheat the oven to 350 F; position the rack in the middle. Grease a Bundt pan with cooking spray or butter, dust with flour and tap out excess.
In a medium bowl, sift together the flour, baking soda, salt and chai masala spice until combined.
In a large bowl, whisk the eggs with the sugar until combined; the mixture will lighten in color and look slightly sandy. Whisk in the apple butter, yogurt, oil and vanilla until combined.
Fold the dry ingredients into the wet ones, then gently mix in the walnuts, if using. Do not overmix.
Pour the batter into the pan and smooth out the top with a silicone spatula. Rap the pan on a hard surface to remove any air bubbles. Bake for about 40 minutes, or until a cake tester inserted into the center of the cake comes out clean.
Cool the cake for 15 minutes in the pan, then turn out onto a rack to cool completely.
Recipes notes: If you can find it, try Spicewalla’s chai masala, but if you want to make your own, mix 4 parts ground ginger, 3 parts cinnamon, 2 parts ground cloves, 2 parts ground cardamom and 1 part freshly ground black pepper.
For a special occasion, you can top the cake with cream cheese frosting, but it’s perfect on its own as an understated tea cake.
The cake can be stored at room temperature, tightly wrapped, for up to 4 days.
Nutrition (based on 10 servings): Calories: 310; Total Fat: 12 g; Saturated Fat: 7 g; Cholesterol: 45 mg; Sodium: 390 mg; Carbohydrates: 47 g; Dietary Fiber: 1 g; Sugars: 26 g; Protein: 6 g.
Apple Butter Old-Fashioned
2 ounces bourbon
1 tablespoon apple butter
3 dashes Angostura bitters
1 apple slice, to garnish
Add the bourbon, apple butter and bitters to an empty cocktail shaker. Shake for 20 to 30 seconds, then strain into a tumbler over one large or three small ice cubes. Garnish with an apple slice and serve right away.
Nutrition: Calories: 160; Total Fat: 0 g; Saturated Fat: 0 g; Cholesterol: 0 mg; Sodium: 0 mg; Carbohydrates: 8 g; Dietary Fiber: 0 g; Sugars: 8 g; Protein: 0 g.