In a letter written 28 October 1906 by Aunt Tamerson, to my Aunt Vivian, she wrote:
As father worked at fine jobs (not small) of stone cutting + for years earned 1.00 a day we never went hungry altho it was plain food + dried foods + apple butter was always made in fall either in a big kettle outdoors or the copper boiler inside + it was stirred all day + all nite. Sometimes a friend who lived back of us on the other street came over + helped stir. I always wanted to stay up all nite but soon got sleepy.
Now I have no proof, there is no specific reference, but I'd bet the neighbor who helped stir was Toley Robinson. I can picture Tamerson as a young girl wanting to stay up and visit with her mother and her friend and finally succumbing to the depths of sleep. I can "see" Anna and Toley tucking her in and when all were asleep inside the two of them tending the kettle and talking through the night as best friends will.
But why on earth would they have to stir all night and what is apple butter and why did they make it? Obviously the making of apple butter is not a tradition that continued in my family.
Apple butter is a highly concentrated form of apple sauce, produced by long, slow cooking of apples with cider or water to a point where the sugar in the apples caramelizes, turning the apple butter a deep brown. The concentration of sugar gives apple butter a much longer shelf life as a preserve than applesauce. Apple butter was a popular way of using apples in colonial America, and well into the 19th century. There is no dairy butter involved in the product; the term "butter" refers only to the thick, soft consistency, and apple butter's use as a spread for breads.
A bit more poking around online and I learned that there are apple butter festivals all over the country. The apples are first cored, cut and and cooked just long enough to soften them. They are then pressed through a sieve or strainer and added to the kettle with cider. Initially a hot fire is lit to bring the cider to a boil and afterward the fire is kept just big enough to keep the mixture simmering. When the mixture is reduced enough, spices and sugar are gradually added. Large wooden paddles are used to stir the mixture continuously. Depending on when you start and how large your batch is, you need someone constantly standing over the pot and stirring for hours. I can see how Anna and Toley could easily have worked well into the night.
You can find dozens of recipes online for apple butter. I've found one for the crockpot that I think I'll try. Twenty four hours of the heavenly scent of apples cooking on a cold fall day - without the constant stirring. I'll let you know how it turns out.
I found this wonderful video of the process on YouTube. There are several videos there that I could have used but this one was very well done as a tribute to their family's apple butter tradition. It's about nine minutes long but well worth watching for inspiration as to how to share our own family traditions! (But if you are in a hurry, the actual Apple Butter making starts at the 2:00 point.)
Binns, Tamerson Carlisle. (Buchanan, MI) to “Dear Vivian” [Vivian Carlisle LaValle]. Letter. 28 October 1960. Digital Images 1-9. Privately held by Apple, [ADDRESS FOR PRIVATE USE,] Snowville, New York. 2008. [Carlisle Family, Box #1,
Genealogical Papers, Bentley Historical Library, University of Michigan. 2008.]