When Hugo's toenails brought the faint
of trauma, and decay began its turn,
the Marrons' copper apple butter urn
stood focal, three generations distant
from its casting in West Pennsylvania.
Uncle Manly commands the governing chant
that soothes and chides the stirrers through their scant
turns. Canning is when the real mania
hits; four almost cloned Penn-Dutch
turn twenty-five gallons into God knows
how many jars in seconds, then it slows.
Jars are taken. People leave. Day is dimming.
I wrote that in 1989, shortly after Bob and Velma Marron's annual apple-butter making shindig in Hilton. Their son, Tom, was my college roommate, and we lived, in part, on Mrs. Marron's canned goods. But nothing was so prized as that scrumptious apple butter.
She and her friend, Louise Dobbin, relate the historical details. The kettle --- the "urn" in the poem --- was passed down by Mrs. Marron's grandmother, Mary Bowman. Making apple butter was common practice around Bearsville, Pennsylvania, where she came from. The Marrons made it a local family tradition around 1976.
Mrs. Marron claims her grandmother bought the kettle second-hand 120 years ago, and reckons it's 150 years old. It's made entirely of copper (the outside looks like iron because of years of buildup). The inside shines beautifully, though, as it's carefully cleaned before and after each year's effort.
Dobbin's mother, Nancy Stokes, the "Queen of Apple Butter," lorded over the proceedings until her death at 93 in 1998. Stokes was a "manipulative" lady, capricious about precise apple-butter technique. But for the most part, the Marrons carry on as Stokes did. As Mrs. Marron says, "We try to keep everything old-fashioned."
Peeling, cutting, and coring happens the night before, starting with an iron peeler embossed with "Reading Hardware Co. 1878." It's no quicker than hand peeling, but way cooler. The apples are cored and cut by hand into snitz, by which Mrs. Marron means "eight pieces" (in Penn-Dutch country it usually means "dried apples").
The snitz are washed in cold water with lemon, rinsed, then put in plastic until morning. It takes about three hours to cut the necessary five bushels. The Marrons are particular about the types, using roughly equal parts Ida Red, Mac, Cortland, and 20 Ounce, bought from Burch's farm market.
In the morning, son Dave and son-in law Dan Ophardt have fire duties, which start with leveling a spot in the driveway. While they build the fire, Tom and his wife, Marni, clean only the inside of the kettle with vinegar and water, and then butter just the very top.
Family and friends gather. The Marrons have seven living children, and all but one eventually arrive. You want dedication? Grandson John Marron is being picked up from the Pittsburgh Art Institute by his mom just to be here for the day.
There is also an old-timey band, The Fox Den, in which Bob Marron plays mandolin. Joyce Tyler plays a nylon string guitar with calm, deadly rhythm, and the sound circles around her playing. Walt Fisher plays fiddle and cracks wise, John Ande picks banjo, and Pete White plays guitar.
They play in a circle, calling out numbers like "The Glendale Train" and "Rollin' in My Sweet Baby's Arms." They all know almost everything, and even with a new song, the unshakeable rhythm skitters on. I sat in on bass and have never felt more welcomed by a bunch of musicians. (The Fox Den hosts a bluegrass jam the fourth Sunday of every month at the Brockport Conservation Hall. Contact spokeswoman Maryln Lafferty, 637-2982, for information.)
With the fire built, the tunes ringing, and soup and a dozen kinds of baked goods set out for guests, the actual cooking begins. They get two gallons of water boiling, and then add apples, one bag at a time, staring with Ida Red. When the apples start to fall apart, another bag goes in. When all the apples are in (this takes a couple of hours), they continue cooking them until there are no lumps.
Throughout the entire cooking process --- which takes most of the day --- the kettle has to be stirred incessantly. We all take a turn with the old stirrer, a five-foot handle with a two-foot blade, all made of cherry wood. Tom points out that the stirrer and scraper --- used intermittently on the kettle's sides --- have to be made of fruit woods.
Newbies are given instructions: never let the blade lose contact with the bottom of the kettle, and never stop moving. Keep a steady pace, "round and round the outside, up and down the middle." It's physical, and after 10 minutes, you're ready to be relieved. But there are plenty of folks to share the effort.
The butter slowly darkens, but color isn't the test. The trick is to cook off the water, which you test by putting a bit on a saucer and tipping it. The sugar goes in next (35 to 40 pounds), and then they continue cooking until the water is gone again.
The spices come next, added in just the right way. A mixture of six ounces of cinnamon, three ounces of clove, and sugar gets combined with a bit of the sauce. When melted together, it gets stirred into the kettle, and then off it comes before the spice is lost.
Meanwhile, a kitchen crew gets ready for canning. It cleans 120 pint jars in the dishwasher, and then sets up in two teams of three at opposite ends of a table. Runners schlep the butter by the bucket, and in each team, one person dips, another cleans tops, and a third puts lids on. They can the entire 15 gallons in about 20 minutes.
Each participating family gets about six pints. I'll always say it's the world's best apple butter, not simply because it tastes great (it does), but because there is something of that kettle's 150 years in each jar. There is also a bit of Velma Marron and Louise Dobbin, and their mothers, Georgia Gill and Nancy Stokes. The apple butter seams to bubble with The Fox Den's music, even.
It takes me back 20 years to the best of my college memories. And for each person involved, it is a transport to another period, a living reminder of how the past informs and enriches, filling our bellies with sweet warmth. Thank you, Mr. and Mrs. Marron, for the chance to be a part of it.
For 15 years, Premier Pastry (433 South Avenue) has done specialty orders, but no retail. For the holiday season, they now have Pecan tarts, Dacquoise Noisettes, and various other specialties available from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, and until 3 p.m. on Saturday. For a Buche de Noel or Chocolate Cosmos, call them a few hours ahead (546-1420).
--- Michael Warren Thomas
Michael Warren Thomas can be heard on WYSL 1040 AM. Tune in on Saturdays for gardening, restaurants, and travel from 9 to noon, and on Sundays for Toronto restaurants and wine from 10 to noon. Listen live on the web at www.SavorLife.com.