Lye Soap and Apple Butter

Alice Heun: Barn and Cows, 1934
Photo: Alice Heun: Barn and Cows, 1934. by americanartmuseum, Smithsonian American Art Museum, creative commons, flickr

By Crane-Station

This is a true account of life on a small Missouri farm during the Great Depression, as told by Letty Owings, age 89. It is a description of two precise arts. Other examples of precise arts include quilting, weaving, and canning.

Lye Soap and Apple Butter

Two labor-intensive jobs that the adults did every Fall was to prepare the lye soap and the apple butter. Each family prepared its own supply of these two staples, and the supply had to last the whole year. Equipment was essential for these jobs. For the apple butter, the large iron kettle had to be copper lined so that the apple butter did not stick or burn. For the soap, a large iron kettle was used.

The apple butter kettle was passed down through the generations. If a family did not have an apple butter kettle, they shared with another family. Newly married couples inherited a kettle and when a farmer died and the farm was to be dissolved, there was always much discussion about who was going to get the apple butter kettle.

The apple butter was cooked over a fire with a long-burning wood, and so that the person stirring could withstand the heat, she used a stirrer that was very long- five feet or so. Kids never did the stirring or the stoking of the fire, for fear of scalding or burns. My mother did the stirring, and there was a very specific rhythm to it: right side-left side- middle. The rhythm prevented any sticking and ensured consistency and taste. One part was never stirred more than the other. Each woman had her own recipe of spices and sugar in specific ratios that had also been handed down through generations like the kettle.

DO - Apple Day Apple Butter
Photo by vastateparksstaff on flickr

Farming women set aside three days for the apple butter. The first day was for peeling, the second day was for cooking and the third was for canning. There was always talk about whose apple butter was better and every woman believed her apple butter was the best. Apple butter was a staple and making apple butter in the fall was a matter of pride for each family. The women always wore sun bonnets to stir the apple butter because a tan was considered ugly. Women covered their arms to prevent any burns from splattering. The men built the fire and set the kettle in place, but the women peeled the apples and did the stirring. On the third day, my mother put the apple butter into jars with snap-on lids, boiled the jars and covered the lids with sealing wax. On apple butter days I would run home real fast to watch.

Like apple butter, the lye soap making was both art and ritual, and it was done individually, not communally. Soap was made in a large iron kettle over an outside fire, and a long stirrer was used. Women took great pride in their soap and there was always the exchange among neighbors, “What is your soap like?” My mother saved animal fat from the butchering and this was the basis for the soap. She added lye and stirred to a precise consistency. This was important because she needed to be able to pour, cool and then slice the soap into bars.

The soap had a neutral, clean smell, and the goal was to make the soap as white as possible. The browner the soap, the less respect others had for the soap and for the soap maker. There was great pride in the soap quality and in how nice the cut was, and how pretty the bars. The lye soap lasted all year, and we used it to hand wash everything. I had my own little washboard, that I got for Christmas.

A great deal of expertise went into soap cooking. My mother was an artist and a designer who was an excelled at sewing and quilt making, and these talents carried over into her soap and apple butter making as well as canning. Today apple butter does not taste the same, probably because the apples have changed and because it is difficult to duplicate the unique and wonderful taste of apple butter that is made over an open fire. We ate our apple butter on cornbread. I assumed that cornbread came over from the old country in Germany where my ancestors came from, but I learned much later that cornbread was an American addition.

Note:

Saponification is a process that produces soap, usually from fats and lye. In technical terms, saponification involves base (usually caustic soda NaOH) hydrolysis of triglycerides, which are esters of fatty acids, to form the sodium salt of a carboxylate. In addition to soap, such traditional saponification processes produces glycerol. “Saponifiable substances” are those that can be converted into soap.[1]

Source.

Also, in case your have missed this lovely short film about a circus during the Great Depression, it is very well worth 20 minutes. Please have a look:

9 Responses to Lye Soap and Apple Butter

  1. frsandoval says:

    These little quantum packages of history must make Mr. Planck take note, Rachael. My soul must be trapped somewheres in time. I know of no one who would consider going back to the good old days but for – a yearning desire in the back of the soul. Thank you for your labor of love. Hope you and Fred enjoy the rest of our Memorial Day.

    • masonblue says:

      Rachel here, thank you so much, very much appreciated. I hope you have a lovely day as well, frsandoval!

    • Peace be with you and all of us this Memorial Day.

      One way or another, this darkness has got to give.

      • frsandoval says:

        Yes Indeed! A light of peace must enter this darkness and a new inconceivable perspective must be open before us that will basically require us to rewrite the way we think.

        • Astrologers call it the Age of Aquarius when the desire to form groups to promote the ideals of equality, freedom and independence will overwhelm the desire for authoritarianism and control.

          • frsandoval says:

            I would not be able to express a view on astrology one way or another. Astrology and fortune cookies have not been reliable systems in my own experience per se. Thus, you may refer to me as one who is willfully ignorant of these systems. My aforementioned statement used to describe our present rampant social behavior was borrowed from Max Planck. He used the expression to describe the distribution of energy in relation to wavelengths in thermodynamics in his Nobel lecture given in June 1920. Am I off topic, again?

          • You and I have a tendency to create and follow our own thread, which is a good thing.

            Astrology has been ridiculed as a science and I only mentioned it because the Age of Aquarius is a description of an emerging change in global consciousness, such as what you described as a necessary change for “this darkness” to lift.

            Whether that will happen remains to be seen.

  2. Good morning everyone and happy Memorial Day! We welcome our visitors this morning from:

    United States
    Australia
    Canada
    United Kingdom
    New Zealand
    Netherlands
    Ireland
    South Africa
    Malaysia
    Mexico
    India
    Switzerland
    Sweden

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: