The Apple Butter Gang strikes again!
They've laid low for the last 18 years.
But somebody in the George family got a hankerin' for homemade apple butter and Dolores and Rodney George of Forest Inn put the word out to the rest of the gang that they were setting aside the weekend of Oct. 9 and 10 to make the delicious Pennsylvania Dutch favorite.
Clair and Margaret George, married 63 years, presided over the whole process.
"This is only the third time I helped make apple butter. The first time was in 1966. The second time was in 1992. We're making it now because we're hungry for it," says Margaret, 81.
"And homemade tastes much better than store-bought," adds son, Rodney.
"And it's a chance for the family to get together. It's become a tradition now and we'd like to keep it going," says his wife, Dolores.
Rodney purchased eight bushels of apples, a mix of Fallawalters, Winesap and Golden Delicious.
Early Saturday morning, there's a fight to see who gets to use the two antique peelers, dated 1878 which have been in the family for generations. The littlest members of the gang love this job because it's something they can do, with the help of an adult to put the apples on the peeler. An apple is peeled in less than 10 seconds.
The next step is coring the apples.
"Thanks to Pampered Chef's apple corers, they make the job go a lot faster," says Dolores.
Her sister-in-law, Linda George Everett, Amy (Clair and Margaret's granddaughter) and her husband, John Kline, are making short work of the growing piles of peeled apples.
The cored apples are gone over to remove any bad spots and cores that were left, by Clair's 93-year-old sister, Irene Beers of Trachsville, her daughter, Diane Beers Green of Walnutport, and daughter-in-law, Mary Beth Beers of Forest Inn, Dolores, Margaret and her daughter, Virgie George Behler.
"There can't be any bruising on them before they're cooked," says Virgie.
The apple slices are then put in a bucket. It has been determined that 17 buckets fill one large container. They take a slice of apple and place it in a tin pie pan for every bucket they fill. It's their way of keeping count. Then the apples are placed in the cooler.
As members of the extended George family and friends work, the newly built butcher shed is filled with happy chatter and the heavenly smell of apples.
Conversations vary from trading recipes, where to go for a good steak sandwich to the latest news in their families. Inevitably, memories are shared about their growing up years on the farm, especially about butchering. Which they still do.
"You can't beat homemade scrapple, liver pudding, fresh and smoked sausage, smoked hams and bacon," says Rodney.
"We ate everything but the squeal," laughs Virgie.
"Do you remember how we use to make our own lye soap?" says Margaret.
"Yah. It was good for poison," adds Clair, 85.
"This is what I like," says his granddaughter, Amy. "I love the history. I like learning about the generations and hearing the stories of the family."
She adds, "It's about good times. It's important for our kids to see what's involved. I want to keep these family traditions alive."
As Amy and the other adults were busy with the apples, their youngsters were learning how to use an old corn sheller and playing with the shelled corn. They were having a great time with the farm animals and playing in the fresh air and sunshine. They found it fascinating on how to grind feed for the animals and how they were fed.
"It's been a very informative day for the children," says Dolores.
Dolores has made homemade sticky buns and ham and bean soup. With family contributions of sausage sandwiches, pizza baked zita, hot dogs and sauerkraut, homemade baked beans and halupki soup, a huge chocolate cake with peanut butter frosting, pineapple upside cake and white cake all waits for the hungry workers when they take breaks.
Members of the George family drop in throughout the morning and early afternoon, lending a hand or to just socialize.
Late Saturday night at 11 p.m. Rodney begins cooking 40 gallons of apple cider in a large copper kettle that is heated by a propane gas heater. He starts adding the apples around 6:30 a.m. Sunday morning.
"When my mom use to make apple butter, she had to stand over the kettle and constantly stir it for eight to 10 hours. My dad and I designed the electric mechanism from parts of an old washing machine that we connected to wood paddles to stir it," says Clair. His mom use to soak corn husks in water and wrap them around the paddles so they wouldn't damage the copper kettle. Now Margaret wraps the paddles in cloth.
Eight to 10 hours later Sunday morning the butcher-shed-turned-apple-butter headquarters is filled with the heavenly autumn aroma of cooking apples. When the apples are "mushy", cloves, cinnamon and 40 lbs. of sugar are added.
Dolores boils canning jar lids and caps while the rest of the gang fills clean canning quart and pint jars with the hot delicious apple butter, wiping the jars clean and the lids are screwed on.
Bowls and spoons are supplied as members of the Apple Butter Gang feast on the fruit of their labors. In between lip-smacking and eyes rolling heavenward in approval come advice on how best to eat apple butter.
On fresh baked bread, cottage cheese, scrapple, liver, and liver pudding are some of the suggestions.
The first batch fills 94 quarts and 38 pints and the second batch fills 30 quarts and 28 pints.
The jars are placed on shelves in the butcher shed's cooler. Now there's nothing left to do but enjoy the fruits of their labor throughout the coming months.
The Georges love any excuse to get together at the farm. It has been in the family for four generations beginning with Clair's grandfather, Tom Eckhart. He sold it to Claude George who married Tom's daughter, Marijane. They sold it to their son, Clair, and wife, Margaret, who then sold it to their son, Rodney, a Towamensing Township supervisor and the roadmaster and his wife, Dolores, a paraprofessional at Pleasant Valley Intermediate School.
It's a working farm of 200 acres plus they farm an additional 200 acres, growing hay, corn, oats and wheat. They also raise pigs and steers, all with the help of their son, Matt, who is employed at Atlas Machine Welding. Matt also has a horse barn and raises Christmas trees on the farm.
"This is cool," says Matt as he holds his three-year-old son, Mason, on his lap, sticking another apple on the peeler so Mason can turn the handle. "The family doesn't get together often enough. This is great."
"I love doing this. I was raised on a farm, too. It brings back old times. The last time we did this, my mother Alberta Beers was here. She is no longer with us, but I know she's watching us today," says Diane (Beers) Green.
Shauan Andrews, a neighbor of the Georges, helps clean up the peeled apples.
"I'm a California girl. I'm here to learn how to make apple butter and how to bring an old tradition into the new generation," she says.
Curtis and Mary Beth Beers, of Forest Inn, came for the comradery.
"And to talk a little bit of Dutch," he says. "It just puts a smile on your face to do what your grandma and grandpa use to do."
His wife, Mary Beth says, "I love my husband's family. We live close by and this becomes a social occasion as we share the work. You don't want to lose this. And we like the finished product," she smiles.
"It's coming back home. Being with my family. I love my family. It makes me feel good. It's being around your mom and dad because you don't know how much longer they'll be here," says Virgie.
Virgie's daughter and granddaughter, Lori and Kyna Gibson, of Lehighton, participated because it was an opportunity for getting the family together.
"Good times," says Lori.
"This is exciting. It's making something not everybody does. There's a lot of standing around and waiting. But we talk a lot about life. It's worth it," says Clair and Margaret's son, Barry George.
Lenore Dreisbach of Walnutport, Irene's daughter, is thoroughly enjoying the experience.
"I'm reconnecting with my cousins and family. I lived in Florida for the last 12 years. This is something we don't have down there. And I was really happy my 93-year-old mother could participate."
Shannon and Kip George brought their children, Kody and Shane to share in the family fun and enjoys being part of a tradition.
Roy and Linda Christman from the Beltzville area pays a visit to the apple butter headquarters.
"This is wonderful that old traditions are kept alive. I remember schnitzing parties when I was a young boy. Homemade is much better," says Roy.
Stephanie Green, daughter of Dianne Green says of the making of apple butter as "Incredible. Awesome. Something to see."
Lena Kreidler, who will be 94 in December, a friend of Irene Beers, recalls making apple butter when she was a young girl."
"But we did it with the hand-stirring method. I was interested to see how the time's have changed and the way it's made today." She is happy that not all that much has changed.
Will the Apple Butter Gang wait another 18 years to make it again?
"Don't know. When the spirit moves us, I guess. It will probably be a spur of the moment thing again. Like this time," says Virgie.
The Apple Butter Gang agrees that making apple butter is a time-intensive operation. But it is the Georges' family way of preserving their heritage and a way of life they've known for generations.