Wanda's Tinness-sea apple butter was nothing to hurry along

Justin Isherwood
Wanda and Alice spent two days every fall making apple butter in a hog boiler over a slow fire, the haze of their unambitious fire rising like an apparition over the trees.

The recipe read as follows:

Apple Juice

½ cup sugar

1 ½ cup cinnamon

¾ teaspoon cloves

1/8 teaspoon ginger

1/4 teaspoon nutmeg

4 cored apples smashed (a hammer works, so does a blender but a hammer has a more innate sense of accomplishment.)

Bring to boil, cook at low heat until thick, about 10 hours, at which point there is an omnipresent veneer of apple butter everywhere in the house.

There is another way, some would call it primitive, some an art form, some a cheap way to keep apples through the winter without resorting to a refrigeration.  A touch more acute if you don’t have a refrigerator or electricity in the house.

My neighbor across the road was Wanda Johnson who came to Weesconsee “from the heels of Tinness-sea.

Tinness-sea people have a lot of 'sees' in their dialect. I employed her sons on my farm until they got uppity and wanted real wages. To confess here the prime ingredient of raising potatoes is the ability to frisk the neighborhood of boys and girls lusting after cash money with no regard for the physical trauma of that transaction.

The plot line often included their moms and dads. Which is the absurd thing about raising potatoes, that utter dependency on the neighborhood to get the crop in the ground, out of the ground, in a bag and shipped off to be someone else’s problem. 

The hire window begins at the suckling age to the one-legged cripple somehow useful to the task...including Wanda at 23 stone—I’m probably under-estimating.

Every fall my Wanda from Tinness-sea made apple butter in her back yard. She’d rustle up the untended apples from the neighborhood to the gain of a couple barrels-equivalent of apples. When it comes to apple butter blemish doesn’t matter.

Then she invited Alice over. Alice was the widow of Willie, the township’s esteemed trout-killer, who lived on the far side of the woods. Past the pond on the trail north, that Willie’s tree line. What Willie planted to pinus strobus in the late ‘40s and what became pretty good rabbit hunting combined with the single shot Stevens as hung over Willie’s porch door for half a century. 

Alice being widowed was carefree and prone to delinquency, reason enough for Wanda to invite her to tend apple butter, to keep her from mischief.

The Tinness-sea method of apple butter doesn’t involve a blender, instead something of a 12-pound maul combined with a wash tub to the collective effort of smashing those two barrels of apples. 

The resulting trash dumped in a hog boiler or suitable substitute—an off-hand petroleum barrel works—this being the Tinness-sea recipe. The rest is up to a slow fire and to cook the ever-loving snot out of those apples. Somewhere along to add a couple sacks of sugar, the full box of cinnamon, cloves and what else demons you want.

Apple butter-making at this juncture is like maple sugaring except the fire is calmer.  Tinness-sea apple butter according to Wanda wasn’t to be rushed, good butter takes the whole day, like as not to the supper hour if not the twilight. The whole day tending a slow fire, occasionally to stir the kettle til it comes to resemble roofing tar, a bit more to brown and not quite so smooth as roofing tar.

For the next week Wanda went around the neighborhood distributing her Tinness-sea butter, in ample measure.

Wanda and Alice spent two days every fall making apple butter, the haze of their unambitious fire rising like an apparition over the trees. The boys set out her favorite living room chair, another for Alice who was shy of 92 years at the time. 

Those two delinquents tending fire, give an occasional a stir to the hog kettle with an oar with an unhurried burp and belch. Drinking coffee, playing cards, napping with their mouths open, knitting, telling lies, making Tinness-sea butter. Until the right consistency was reached, to my observation roofing tar, nut brown going on khaki.

The rest was up to the boys, to lever that hog kettle from the fire, line up a regiment of quart jars, ladle in the butter, screw on the lids. 

For the next week Wanda went around the neighborhood distributing her Tinness-sea butter, in ample measure, four quarts or eight. Wanda believed Wisconsin winters were eight quart winters. 

The consequence then was up to the inventive impulse of our neighborhood, how to rid ourselves of eight quarts of apple butter. Discoveries followed, apple butter was good on pancakes, on toast, oatmeal, waffles, and stirred into whisky, or bourbon, also tea.  Wanda’s butter could turn two pieces of plain white bread into something just this side of apple pie when fried up in a long handled pan on a dreary day making wood.

Course, Wanda wanted the jars back, sometime before the next summer, so you had to keep up the pace or buy jars. Genius things happened, pumpkin pie of about half apple butter was another animal entire. That layer of Tinness-sea butter created a caramel flavored intaglio that wasn’t to be denied when combined with vanilla ice cream.

Wanda is buried south end in the Maine cemetery on Hoover Road, what used to be called the Maine School Road, hers is a wide plot.  At apple butter time I like to take a jar and smear some on her stone. I’ve checked, it’s ok with the sexton, rain washes it off, though the dirt of her grave probably tastes of Tinness-sea.

Justin Isherwood

Justin Isherwood of Plover is a fifth-generation farmer and the author of Book of Plough,Christmas Stones & The Story Chair, and Farm Kid: Tales of Growing Up in Rural America.