By Vern Eppley, updated by Randy Brooks
Pohick Church has been holding an annual Country Fair each fall since 1945, and Apple Butter has been a part of it for almost as many years. Over the years, Apple Butter making has grown to become a major event of fellowship and great camaraderie at Pohick Church, involving an ever-growing number of parishioners and friends. We have continued to refine our processes each year, building on lessons learned from years past leading to a better product, but always holding true to a fine tradition of good fellowship and nostalgia—making Apple Butter the Old Fashioned Way.
Our Country Fair is held in late September on the church grounds. Apple Butter is made the weekend before the fair with some apple sauce being set aside for Fair Day. In past years we have had three 40-gallon copper kettles available to us, each with its own extended stirring paddle and a calibrated measuring stick. In 1997 that all changed. A fourth kettle became available to us so that we were able to do four kettles on Apple Butter Weekend. Currently, we can four kettles on Apple Butter weekend and save one kettle for Fair Day. The 40 gallons of apple sauce for Fair Day is refrigerated for the week. Our apples, Summer Rambo, are ordered from a grower in Biglerville, Pennsylvania, and picked up the Sunday before Apple Butter Weekend.
Saturday of Apple Butter Weekend is devoted to cooking and processing the apples into apple sauce. The apples are washed and cut into small snits by a wonderful group of volunteers armed with paring knives and cutting boards. The snits are taken outside to the cooking kettles, where they are cooked down to a soft mush. This mush is then processed through food processors, separating out the apple skins and seeds, and leaving behind a delicious, hot apple sauce.
Sunday of Apple Butter Weekend is devoted to cooking the apple sauce down to apple butter and canning it in pint jars. It usually takes about 12 hours to cook down a 40-gallon kettle of apple sauce. A hardy group of volunteers arrives at the Parish House at 3:00 AM Sunday to get started, and thus we are usually ready to can around 4:00 PM in the afternoon (shifts of workers rotate into the Sunday morning services).
Our 40-gallon copper kettles were built by true artisans and craftsmen skilled in the processes of working with copper. Each kettle comes with a three-legged, metal stand. The outside cooking area for each kettle is prepared by laying out fire bricks on the brick patio adjacent to the Parish House Common Room. With the kettle in place and leveled, a "chimney" of fire brick is erected around the base of the kettle to concentrate the heat of the cooking fire on the bottom of the kettle. Oak is our firewood of choice and guarantees an even, hot cooking fire.
On Sunday, each kettle is filled with apple sauce. The kettles are constantly stirred from the moment the fire is started to the point at which the last scoop of Apple Butter is dipped out. The apple sauce is quickly brought to the boiling point, which is then sustained until we are ready to can. Sugar is added to each kettle over a one-hour period when we are within two hours of the projected canning time. The amount of sugar varies based on the sweetness of the apples. An ad-hoc committee is established for the “taste test” to help decide the amount of sugar to use. Normally, less than 15 lbs of sugar is added to each kettle. When we are within one hour of the projected canning time we start adding the spices to each kettle. The spices are added at this time so as not to cook out the flavor of the spices before canning. The recipe for spices for each 40-gallon kettle is: 4 ¾ cups of Cinnamon, 1 ¾ cups of Allspice, and a “generous” ¾ cup of Ground Cloves.
The process for making the canning decision starts with the 12-hour rule of thumb for cook down. We have learned this lesson over the years as we disciplined ourselves not to rush the canning decision. After 10 hours of cooking we start doing the stainless steel test. The stainless steel test is spooning out a "glob" of Apple Butter onto a stainless steel surface and subjectively evaluating the quantity of water that leeches out as the "glob" cools. We started with 40 gallons of apple sauce, and we usually end up with 30-32 gallons of Apple Butter to can.
The canning process is a sight to behold. The women of the Apple Butter Committee have this process so well optimized that you would think you were observing a "well-oiled, automated production line" at full speed. They have laid out a large horseshoe arrangement in the Common Room of the Parish Hall with volunteers lined up on both sides of each leg of the horseshoe. The hot Apple Butter is delivered to each leg, is ladled into the pint canning jars, and the jars are pushed up the "production line," where they receive a sterilized lid and ring. The rings are then tightened down, and the jars then turned upside down and packed in 12-jar boxes.
For Fair Day we start cooking the apple sauce down very early Saturday morning, so that we will be able to can the Apple Butter around 1:00 PM Saturday afternoon. We set up a smaller version of the canning "production line" in our booth at the Fair Grounds. This works very well and yields the same high quality product.
Apple Butter at Pohick Church has always been a "best seller." In 1997, we increased our output to 1379 pint jars and sold all but about 10 cases by the end of the Fair. Thus no customer was turned away on Fair Day. Those 10 cases were completely sold out after the 9:15 AM service the next day. The 1379 pint jars represented a 50% increase over 1996, which was to be expected in that we went from 4 kettles to 6 kettles. In 1998 we canned a total of 1296 jars and were sold out by 2:00 PM on Fair Day. In 1999 we canned a total of 1385 jars, our best year yet, and all were sold by the end of the Fair at 4:00 PM. We still produce between 1300-1500 jars, including several cases of small jars to give as gifts to church newcomers. Our record was in 2006 when we canned 1534 jars!
Our Apple Butter making process at Pohick Church has evolved into a broad-based tradition, which gathers together a large number of people working towards a common goal. We have been able to achieve a sense of personal growth, sharing and wellbeing by "pulling" people into this process, demonstrating the fun, rewards and satisfaction of social interaction in working towards a common goal, and in achieving a sense of accomplishment with the results of a job well done. This is the Spirit of Apple Butter at Pohick Church. Why not join us next year for a great time of fellowship and camaraderie?