Sweet Red Apple Alchemy
The scent of fall
More precious than gold.
Grandmother’s apple butter
I long for it so–
Just one more taste before I grow old!
Fall, for me, has never been about pumpkin spice. Fall is about apples, cored, peeled, cinnamon sweet with Red Hots, bubbling away on the stove. Giant pots, a mysterious pointed colander with cone-shaped pestle pushing applesauce through the holes to strain it into a perfect consistency. She added the sugar and cinnamon and cooked it longer, adding the Red Hots and a dash of red food coloring if it wasn’t the shade of red that suited her. More cooking. Spooning out some and pouring it from one spoon to another in the sunlight filtering through the kitchen to check thickness and color. Sometime during that process, she must have added the magic that perfected it, though I never witnessed just when.
The delicious aroma of simmering apples and Red Hots will forever bring back the mystical alchemy that was Grandmother’s kitchen. There were always apples in her kitchen. The scent of apples lingered in the Ford LTD Station Wagon that served as the family car for most of my childhood.
The scent of apples is the scent of love, family, and comfort. It is the scent of home.
I no longer remember the name of the apple variety she preferred for making apple butter. But I remember trips to Virginia to buy them in bushel baskets, boxes, and crates. Sometimes they were simply contained in plain brown paper bags. They were special apples, not available just everywhere. We always went into Virginia to get them. Sometimes it was a day trip. Sometimes we spent a weekend or more in Wise County, staying with family. Both my grandparents grew up in the town of Wise. Grandaddy grew up in a little house right in town and Grandmother grew up on Hurricane Road, just a few miles away, across from what is now known as the Wise County Fairgrounds. The Fairgrounds were part of her family’s farm and was her childhood playground.
She grew up cooking, canning, gardening, and perfecting her apple butter recipe with all the love of her family surrounding her.
After bringing the apples home, Grandmother, my mother. my Aunt Lib and even Grandaddy worked with the apples in batches. Peeling, coring, slicing and cooking them down into applesauce. Straining, seasoning, coloring and of course, the alchemy part, where she infused the mixture with love and magic. The process culminated in spooning the mixture into sterilized half-pint jars and sealing them with lids and rings. After the jars cooled from the hot water bath, we carried them down to the basement to be stored until we needed them. Whenever a fresh jar was needed, I was often the one sent down to fetch it. The basement was only partially dug out and was dark except for the pool of light from the single light bulb with it’s pull chain. I had to walk in a few feet to reach the chain. And walk out again in the dark after turning out the light. I hated that part. But it was worth it for the ruby treasure in the jars on the shelf.
Apple butter was part of almost every meal. We spread it on toast or biscuits for breakfast, after allowing a little butter to melt into the bread first. The same with rolls or cornbread with dinner. A whole other kind of alchemy occurred between the melted butter, the bread, and the shining red apple butter. It is impossible to describe and now just out of reach for me.
There are very few things in life about which I am a purist. Apple butter is at the top of that very short list. You may love the brown stuff in your grocery store labeled apple butter. I cannot eat it. It looks wrong and it tastes even more wrong to me. If it isn’t red, it simply isn’t apple butter.
I have so far been unable to locate her recipe. I don’t think she committed it to writing really. She simply knew how it should look, taste, and feel and how to get it there. Her cooking philosophy was to season it until it tastes good and to cook it till it’s done!
If you’d like to try making red cinnamon apple butter, I suggest googling ‘red hots apple butter recipes’. There are many out there. I plan to try a crockpot recipe with the Red Hots before the end of the year myself. I plan to try it with Honey Crisp apples. I’ll let you know how it goes. If you try it too or if you too had a grandmother who made Red Hots apple butter, I would love to hear your story in the comments, or in person if we know each other…