Recovering the Past with Apple Butter
How can scholars of material culture understand the physical and time constraints faced by the craftspeople we study? My thesis focuses on the career and writing of Philadelphia Cooking School instructor Sarah Tyson Rorer (1849-1937). She had a prolific writing career, publishing dozens of cookbooks, menus, and articles on nutrition and domestic science. While the food Rorer created no longer survives for study, I can look at her recipes and cookbooks in order to better understand the labor, skill, and time involved in following period recipes. As an informal exercise, I decided to conduct experimental archaeology and recreate Mrs. Rorer’s recipe for apple butter following her instructions.
The recipe calls for one bushel plus five pounds of apples. Not wanting to have 53 lbs of apple butter on my hands at the end of the day, I decided to scale the recipe down to five pounds of apples. The proportions of the original recipe indicate that canning apple butter was likely a seasonal, once a year activity. Next, I followed Mrs. Rorer’s directions for sterilization by placing inverted jars and lids in boiling water.
This image comes from a 1917 “Home Canning” issue of the Farmers’ Bulletin 839, published by the United States Department of Agriculture. The original image caption reads, “Fig.4. – Packing blanched and cold-dipped product into jars. Note empty jars to be packed inverted in pan of hot water. They are thus kept clean and hot.” I also opted to follow a contemporary sterilization practice, running the jars through a dishwasher.
After coring, and slicing the apples, I added them to apple cider. Prescriptive literature of the period recommends using a porcelain-lined kettle for canning, but I made do with a soup pot as a make-shift alternative. You can see in the image that the apples still have their peel–this was a misinterpretation on my part of the term pared in Mrs. Rorer’s recipe. A home-canner reading Rorer’s recipe would have to know that pared and cored meant removing the peel and the core of the apple.
Caption: The jars rest inverted in a pot of boiling water on the back burner. On the front burner, the apples begin to cook down.
Stirring the apples over consistent heat on my electric stove, I watched the fruit gradually break down to the smooth consistency of apple butter.
I stirred, and stirred, and stirred. For three hours! All the while I thought about what a time commitment it would have been to process a bushel of apples into apple butter, how exhausting it would be to stir, fill, and seal dozens of jars.
Image from 1917 “Home Canning” issue of the Farmers’ Bulletin 839 published by the United States Department of Agriculture
Once I stirred, “almost constantly until the material will not break,” I quickly filled my prepared jars and placed self-sealing lids and rims over the contents. At the time Mrs. Rorer published this recipe, the jars available to home-canners would have included rubber rings and glass or porcelain-lined metal lids. Letting the jars cool, I waited for the satisfying “pop” of the seal forming.
Caption: Five pounds of apples and three hours of stirring produced three 8oz jars of apple butter.
Though I wasn’t replicating the process with any great degree of precision or period appropriate equipment, going through the process of following one of Mrs. Rorer’s recipes helped me understand how much time and energy went into preparing food in the home. I came away with a greater appreciation for the skill and the energy that home-canners put into a task that we, in our modern kitchens, so easily outsource. The process was an effective exercise in pulling me out of text-based research, and giving me a glimpse at home-canner’s lived realities.
By Sarah Berndt, WPAMC Class of 2017