Out on Boozy Creek Road in Blountville, Tennessee, something big happens every fall at Salem United Methodist Church.
For the last 40 years, the church has made apple butter. But not just some apple butter.
This year, Salem members sliced and cooked 200 bushels of Double Red Rome apples to make 450 gallons of the cinnamon-y brown goodness that Southerners love to spread on biscuits.
Did you say 450 gallons?
Charlie Weaver, age 78, grins. “Last year we made 551 gallons. That was too much.”
Charlie has overseen the production of the apple preserves (there is no butter in apple butter, really) for all of four decades. He seems jovial at the moment but admits he’s anxious during the production days. If anything goes wrong, church leaders could lose their investment in the apples they buy in North Carolina — or lose the profit they depend on to pay off a building fund. In 2018, the church made $22,000 in apple butter profit.
“When you take on 200 bushels,” Charlie says, “you don’t want anything to get in your way. I’m up at 3 a.m. worrying about it. But when it’s all over, it’s alright.”
On the morning that I visited Salem UMC in early October, church members of all ages (including 90-year-old Margaret Fogleman and 9-year-old Daisy Kizer) are standing at tables with knives, cheerfully slicing apple after apple.
The sliced fruit will later be carted to a cannery in Virginia for chopping and pureeing. The peel, seeds, and cores will be strained out, and five-gallon buckets of pink applesauce will return to Salem. (Some congregations still do this step the old way, peeling each apple by hand.)
I wish I could have been at Boozy Creek Road later that week, when church members gathered for three mornings beginning at 6:30 a.m. Pastor Lew Kizer took photos of the copper pots lined up in the parking lot in the early morning light.
In each 30-gallon pot, the workers dump 25 gallons of applesauce, 55 pounds of sugar, and 1½ ounces of cinnamon oil. They take turns stirring the pots for five hours as the fruit caramelizes and the flavor intensifies. After the apple butter cools, they pour it into jars. The workers used to cook the pots over wood fires but now they use propane.
In all, Salem cooked 39 pots of apple butter this year: 13 pots each day.
“It takes them back in history,” says Lew, explaining why people love the laborious project so much. “People say that apple butter reminds them of their grandparents. We literally have people come up to help us stir just so they can remember.”
“Our apple butter is good because it’s made with love,” chimes in a church member.
The apple butter will be sold ($5 per pint, $9 per quart) to people all over the community as well as in other states. Most customers are regulars, including a few churches. One member said a relative spotted a jar of Salem apple butter on a dinner table while on a mission trip to Belize.
Many other congregations in our Holston Conference also love making apple butter each year. You can read more about the rich history and tradition behind every jar:
- Peel, chop and stir for hours: How Appalachia’s beloved community apple-butter parties live on (Washington Post, 10.2.19)
- Apple butter thick enough to slice (Appalachian History, 7.30.19)
- The timeless tradition of making apple butter (Appalachian Magazine, 9.15.18)
Thank you, Lew Kizer and Julie Keeton, for sharing your photos.
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