An Old-Fashioned Community Dessert
They say it takes a village to raise a child; years ago, it took a village to do many things. Communities worked together to build barns, harvest crops and make quilts. Sometimes they even worked together to make dessert.
When I was about eight years old, my grandma took me along for a unique community experience—at the time, I didn’t realize it was a dying activity. We wound our way through the twisting roads of The Bottoms, in Chesterfield. This was long before the major, multi-lane roads that slice through the landscape today. We arrived at the Dauster’s farm, known today as Thies Farm. Back then, it belonged to my grandparents’ best friends, Mil and Dux Dauster. It was just as much the center of community activity as the current Thies Farm, albeit still a family farm and not opened to the public at the time.
This wasn’t just a basic farm visit; it was to help make apple butter. Making apple butter, particularly in a large quantity, wasn’t an ordinary event. It required a rather lengthy process and it was also an excuse to have a social gathering.
The Dausters had picked apples from the small orchard on the farm; the apples sat, shiny and red, in numerous bushel baskets on the lawn. Chairs had been placed in a circle under the shade of the large trees. One by one the chairs were occupied by older ladies from nearby farms. Each woman gathered a pile of apples into an enamelware basin and sat it in her lap. With paring knives in hands, the women deftly peeled each apple, refilling the bowl when they were finished. The rhythmic motion didn’t deter them from quick and animated conversation. I’m sure they discussed many of the same topics we might discuss today at a social gathering—family, weather, work and probably a healthy dose of gossip.
Meanwhile the men, some dressed in unfashionable but practical overalls, carried an enormous cast iron kettle lined with copper from the barn. The kettle was nearly as tall as I was at the time. They arranged wood carefully to provide maximum heat to sufficiently heat the cauldron. Then they set the pile ablaze.
The apples were added as fast as the women could peel them. They poured large sacks of sugar and various spices into the mixture. At first, the hodge-podge resembled a strange fruit salad and as the fire did its job, prompted by a constant stirring from a rotation of men, the bubbling mixture began to resemble its trademark soft, brown appearance. The smell of wood smoke with apples and spices was heady.
Large ladles poured steady streams of the thick brown goo into Mason jars that had been boiled for sanitization. Everyone presumably took home their share of the confection to be slathered upon homemade bread, coffee cake or by this time possibly even slices of Wonder Bread.
Long before the days of helicopter parents, this group allowed me to help with every aspect of the process. I learned how to peel an apple using a paring knife. I stood close by as they lit the fire. I helped stir the enormous vat of boiling, sugary slush atop a fire with the large wooden paddle. At the end of the day, I was still excited—yes, it’s true—to help with the mountains of dishes in a farmhouse that had never seen an automatic dishwasher.
I’m pretty sure that this is an event that has been lost to time, replaced with online recipes and takeout meals. It’s a memory I will always treasure. Even then, I realized that this type of gathering was unique. I felt a part of the shared work, even if my 8-year-old hands weren’t really much help. Though you can still purchase apple butter at a farmer’s market or maybe even make it yourself, you can’t buy the experience of that day. Seek out experiences for your children that allow them to be actively involved in the process of making something—perhaps a dessert. Those sweet memories will last a lifetime.
If you have memories, comments or suggestions for future topics, please email Aimee at firstname.lastname@example.org