Plain Talk About Food | Oh Them Apples!

If you follow the simple steps of this recipe, you will have the most delicious Apple Butter imaginable. (Contributed)

It was many years ago…I believe it would have been in late September, when Sister Agnes Marie corralled me, telling me to put on my “long pants” for I was going with “old” Joe, the tramp who had made a home for himself in our convent’s barn, to pick apples donated by a gracious neighboring farmer. Now let me explain how the Nun’s relationship with old Joe came about.

Unlike Hobos and Bums, who both simply beg (or steal) for food, Tramps were those men who just do not want to settle down into a Monday through Friday, nine to five o-clock way of living. Tramps love the open road, jumping onto open box cars on a train, traveling free, and willing to go to wherever that train is headed. Tramps did not want a handout…they would work for food and/or a place to sleep, whether in a barn or a campsite.

And when old Joe came to the Convent…well it was a “marriage made in Heaven,” for old Joe was tired and past being able to hop onto a slow-moving train. Joe needed a forever home, and the nuns needed a barn’s keeper and a gardener. Joe and the nuns made an agreement…food and a bed for life was bartered for feeding St. Bernadette, our cow, a flock of chickens and a pig or two, and taking care of Sister Anne’s rose garden, which provided flowers for our chapel’s altar. This agreement continued for several years, until Old Joe passed to his final reward.

And why did Sister Agnes Marie choose me to go with Old Joe that morning? I believe she knew my history.

I came to the convent from my aunt’s boarding house in Aberdeen, Wash., whose house had the train tracks directly behind. Those tracks headed straight into the mill’s lumberyard a few hundred yards away, near the Chehalis River. And, alongside that river were the campsites of the hobos, bums and tramps who were jumping from or going to jump onto trains.

My little buddy, Jimmy, and I would walk the dirt path alongside the train tracks, down to the river, sneaking a look at the Hobo campsite. Smoke from their fires and smells from coffee and food they were cooking, well, this is ingrained into my memory, forever.

In our town, nearly every household had a garden, and I am sure about the only food those traveling men bought, if they had money, were cans of pork and beans and coffee; the veggies, well they were mostly “borrowed” from the neighborhood gardens.

Those traveling men would throw their “borrowed” whole potatoes, onions, apples, and sometimes corn cobs, onto the coals of the fires to roast, including the cans of pork and beans, and the smells were intoxicating. So much so that today, when I roast veggies on my barbecue, I often think of old Joe and our apple-picking day together.

Here in our San Lorenzo valley, it’s October, and if you have harvested your apples from the tree in your garden and are now looking at the containers in your garage that are overflowing with those apples…what do you do with all of those apples?  

From those apples Old Joe and I harvested, Sister Anna made apple butter, jars and jars of apple butter, smooth and spreadable for toast. Others were chunky that she would pour over a pie dough turning them into a delicious apple galette. Juices were saved and cooked down to a syrupy sauce and poured over pancakes made with apple chunks inside. Oh, so good!

Two years ago, five of us convent girls visited the graveyard in Tacoma, Wash., where all 33 of our nuns have a burial site together. That hallowed ground includes one person not of the “habit.” That little stone simply reads “Old Joe, 1987.”

Last week I was in our Safeway and the price of Gala apples was reasonable, and my last spoonful of my jar of Apple Butter had been spread on toast a few weeks ago, so I bagged myself 4 pounds of those fragrant and sweet Gala apples to make the apple butter recipe below.

If you follow the simple steps of this recipe, you will have the most delicious Apple Butter imaginable. Do not leave out the vinegar. Your family will love you for it.

Sr. Anna’s Apple Butter

This apple butter freezes well. No canning necessary.

4 lbs. peeled, cored and diced apples. 

(Do not use tart Granny Smith apples)

2/3 cup apple cider vinegar (yes, vinegar).

1 cup water

1/2 tsp. salt

Bring ingredients to a boil, turn down to a high simmer and cover pot with a lid, slightly ajar, and cook for 1 hour. Using an immersion blender or a food processor, process until very smooth.  

Add sauce back to pot and stir in…

1 cup packed brown sugar.

2 tsp. Pumpkin Pie Spice

1 tsp. Vanilla extract

Cover pot with lid slightly ajar. Continue cooking, stirring often, until very thick, 1-2 hours.

When cool, add to pint-sized canning jars and freeze. So simple.  

This recipe can be made in a Slow Cooker or Instapot.

Add all ingredients together and simmer on low for 10-12 hours.

Blend to desired consistency, add to jars and freeze.

Colly Gruczelak, a Ben Lomond resident, loves people and loves to cook. Contact her at [email protected].

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Colly Gruczelak, a Ben Lomond resident, loves people and loves to cook. Contact her at [email protected].


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