By Lauren Stepp
In the world of breakfast spreads, jam reigns supreme. Few can resist a crusty slice of sourdough slathered in cloyingly sweet apricot marmalade or an English muffin topped with tart cherry jelly. But the people of Mitchell County do toast differently and have for the past 300-some years.
In this High Country holding, a creamy and fruity concoction called apple butter is the timeworn preserve of choice, says David Biddix, a board member with the Mitchell County Historical Society.
“The historical significance of apple butter in the region has been the continuance of centuries-old practices brought to the mountains by settlers in the mid-1700s,” he says. “While apple butter isn’t the important source of food for mountain families that it was in the past, the traditions surrounding its production have continued to be important in many areas of the region.”
Apple butter is such an iconic foodstuff that the historical society hosts an annual jubilee dedicated to the spread. This year, the 8th annual Apple Butter Festival will return to downtown Bakersville on Saturday, October 9, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Guests can expect arts, crafts and a live demonstration of the cooking process.
Unlike pies or cobblers, both of which can eat up an afternoon at most, apple butter requires days. A recipe from The Every-Day Cook-Book and Encyclopedia of Practical Recipes, For Family Use, a text written by Miss E. Neill in 1891, calls for boiling one barrel of cider until it reduces to nearly half its volume and then adding three bushels of peeled and cored apples. The maker should then “stir constantly for eight to ten hours.”
Other recipes call for varying degrees of commitment. Directions published in The New England Farmer in 1834 prescribe “12 to 15 hours [of] constant and moderate boiling” during which the slurry “must be stirred at the bottom to prevent its burning.” According to Biddix, mountain folk would pass the time by sharing news and gossip.
“This work resulted in a product that gave families a way to preserve their apples for consumption,” he says. “Apple butter could be eaten when food options decreased as cold winter weather moved in.”
Besides the obvious culprits—bread, pancakes, oatmeal and grits—apple butter was also served alongside fatty meats during butchering season. Some families even ate the stuff by the spoonful, sweetening the pot with sugar and even a silver dollar. “We don’t know the significance of this practice,” Biddix says of the latter.
Historians do know that apple butter can be traced back to Germany and Belgium during the Middle Ages. The practice was likely brought to Appalachia by the Pennsylvania Dutch, who migrated to Western North Carolina after the American Revolutionary War. Today, particularly in geographically isolated areas like Mitchell County, mountain natives continue to stew apple butter each fall as a means of preserving both their crop and their heritage.
“Celebrating apple butter brings attention to the important social time that generations of mountain families have experienced making it,” says Biddix. “Apple butter continues the historical practices of forefathers in the region.”
The 8th annual Apple Butter Festival will be hosted by the Mitchell County Historical Society at 55 South Mitchell Avenue, Bakersville. Learn more at MitchellNCHistory.org or by calling 828.688.4371.