Column: In time of change, comforted by a ritual that clicks

  • Mary Otto. Copyright (c) Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to

For the Valley News
Published: 11/25/2020 10:10:09 PM
Modified: 11/25/2020 10:10:04 PM

The comfort of apple butter goes back to my Iowa childhood. I don’t recall whether my grandmother’s version or my mother’s was the best, and I don’t know where they got the apples. But the memory of brown-bread toast slathered with that sweet, spicy spread on an autumn morning before I left for school is mouth-watering still.

It’s a taste I have carried with me through the years. Nearly every place we’ve lived, I’ve carved out a weekend afternoon during the fall to make another batch. A recent Saturday, in a new home and a new kitchen, was the day. But this year, the project was an adjustment. I had to buy apples at an orchard rather than picking them from the old trees in the back yard, and jars were hard to get because of the pandemic. The new kitchen offered an electric range instead of gas. And most troubling, I had lost my old, reliable recipe in the process of moving.

Yet, I would forge ahead. The risk of giving up would be too great. I was surprised at how tentative I felt. Perhaps it was just the move. Perhaps it was more than that. With so much turmoil in the world — wildfires, the virus, racial strife, political unrest — how could some of it not intrude into even an ordinary activity like making apple butter?

My hesitation led to a heightened appreciation for everything about this annual assignment that was familiar. Getting organized, I retrieved my British kitchen scale from its new home on the shelf near the cookbooks, to weigh out the pounds of three varieties of apples called for in the new recipe I had settled on. The scale is a treasure I purchased when we lived in London and I needed to measure ingredients in grams rather than cups, for the beguiling recipes of the Sunday Times cooking section. Then I looked for the other necessities: the blue speckled water-bath canner with its aluminum rack; the vintage, cone-shaped sieve and wooden pestle, inherited from my family; and what I have always called “the-mother-of-all-pots,” a gleaming stainless steel mega-pan with a layered copper bottom, from Bridge Kitchenware in Manhattan.

The rest of the project was easy. It seemed to take no time at all to cut and core the carefully weighed apples, cook them to a pulp on the stove top, sieve them, add the sugar and spice, boil the sweetened applesauce down to the right consistency, and process the filled jars in the canner. The afternoon sped by quickly.

All the while I reveled in the number of birds approaching the feeder outside the kitchen window. While stirring the pot on the stove, I also delighted in views of red maples and rust-colored oaks farther away. Leaves fell, and I had glimpses of the Adirondack Mountains on the far side of Lake Champlain.

I lifted the last jars out of the canner just as the sun was setting beyond the Adirondacks. The lake sparkled. I reflected, as I gazed toward the horizon, that looking through windows into the distance is important, especially as days shorten and we pull inward into smaller spaces. The birds, the falling leaves, the lake and the mountains are about perspective. In challenging times, placing small projects in local kitchens into this larger context can elevate them into a kind of ritual, adding meaning to the effort.

Of course, there was the sink-full of sticky pots and pans to wash and also that bit that had splattered onto the electric cooktop, stuck there till I figured out just how to clean it off. But as I finished up and the lids on the apple butter began, jar by jar, click by click, to say they had sealed, I was content.

Mary K. Otto, formerly of Norwich, lives in Shelburne, Vt. Email her at maryotto13@

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