SHILOH -- Luca Presser stood beside the large copper kettle with both hands wrapped around a slim wooden handle. Steam drifted up from the old cauldron as Presser stirred, gently circling the edges of the pot. Inside, chunks of apple floated in a warm bath of apple cider, the edges peeking over a thin layer of foam on top.
Stirring the pot is one of Presser’s favorite parts of the annual apple butter festival -- the other is eating the finished product.
Shenandoah Christian Church held its annual 62nd annual Apple Butter Festival this weekend.
Since its inception in 1958, the tradition grew from five ladies in a home kitchen to five kettles on the church lawn, with parishioners of all ages taking part in the preparation and enjoying a homemade potluck lunch.
“It's more than a fundraiser, it's good fellowship,” said Kay Jenney, a longtime member of the church. “It helps us with being connected with the community. Everybody looks forward to it.”
The actual preparations begin the day before the festival, when volunteers come to the church to peel, slice and “snitz” the apples -- making sure every seed, core and fleck of skin is removed.
As time-consuming as snitzing is, it’s just the beginning. Tom Gano, an elder at the church, was among the volunteers who showed up at 5 a.m. Saturday morning to fill each kettle with apple cider and light a fire in each wood-burning oven.
Gano didn’t seem to mind the early wake-up call. He relishes the crackling fire, the cool autumn breeze and the conversation.
“You start at five a.m., sit around, tell lies, wait til the cider cooks down,” he said.
It takes three hours to boil the cider down to half its volume, condensing it into an even richer brew. Then it’s time to add the apples.
“You have to stir constantly from that point on, so it doesn’t burn,” Janney said.
As the day goes on, the apple butter will thicken and turn caramel brown, but Gano says there’s one tried-and-true way to know if it’s ready. Scoop a bit out of the pot, plop it onto a porcelain plate and tip the plate sideways. If even a bead of cider drips down the side, it’s not ready yet.
The batches are typically ready to be poured into jars around 3 or 4 p.m. In total, there are about 500 pints of apple butter each year.
“It's become bigger from what it originally was,” Jenney said. “Now we make between 60 and 80 gallons. We usually use 24 bushels of apples and 200 gallons of cider to make that much apple butter.”
The church takes pre-orders for the apple butter, which is sold by the pint, and often sells the rest at Springhill Fruit Farm.
At $5 a pint, the profit margin isn’t high, but the church doesn’t seem to mind.
David Miller, who moved to the community nearly 20 years ago, said the fellowship and camaraderie are what really make the annual festival so special.
“It's the fact that we all get together and we all work together on this project that has a little bit of difficulty to it,” he said. “That's the one thing that keeps drawing me back, these people around here are great. They're a good bunch of people.”