The Apple Butter Gang returns
Hugh Bennett will be the first to admit it.
He’s a flatlander in mountaineer clothing.
His well-worn overalls and scruffy mountain beard cover his softer visage that looks as if it has spent years behind textbooks and business proposals — not a hot kettle churning fruit pulp into smooth flavorful apple butter.
Yet, after all of these years, the kettle is where he remains.
Bennett first came to Valle Crucis in 1989. He was a vacationer turned second-homeowner who was looking to get involved in the community any way he could.
After they began splitting their time between the High Country and High Point, Bennett and his wife were soon roped into clean-up duties at the Valle Country Fair every October.
Then, after a while, Bennett began to watch a lady who worked an apple butter demonstration at the fair every year.
Bennett began to peel apples and helped to hoist the kettle over a hot blaze that met the crisp mountain air with a bite.
He began to ask questions about how the butter was made. He asked too many.
Rather by default than choice, Bennett was named head of the entire operation when another sauce master decided enough was enough.
“When I got involved, I didn’t realize there was such a strong demand for this stuff,” Bennett said. “Then again, they didn’t know I was really a flatlander. They didn’t realize I was a lawyer who went to business school.”
To meet the demand of the ever-increasing demand for the apple butter, everyone involved with the process of turning fresh fruit into a flavorful biscuit spread (that is also a delicacy by itself) began making preparations well in advance.
“To get the apple sauce (a precursor ingredient), there was a lot of arm twisting by the women in the neighborhood to beg, borrow and steal whatever apples they could,” said Bennett, who began conducting his own research to improve the fair’s secret recipe.
“I got every magazine and recipe I could find about apple butter and lined them up side by side,” Bennett said. “I came up with what I thought was a reasonably good recipe, and it has served us well for 20 years.”
Everyone involved in the apple butter making process began to affectionately refer to one another as the “Apple Butter Gang.” At one point, membership was more than 30, but some have retired, as it became more labor intensive.
The Apple Butter Gang returns to this year’s Valle Country Fair, bringing with it a labor of love.
Bennett gave some highlights of how the apple butter is made without giving away too many proprietary secrets.
After apples are cooked, they are put through a device that extracts the pulp, while the peelings remain on top and separate. The apple sauce is put in gallon-sized zip bags and then frozen. The sauce is cooked and made into butter in the days leading up to the fair.
“While we were cooking on Saturday, we would typically sell out of everything we made on Thursday and Friday before the fair,” Bennett said, adding that demand for the butter increased so quickly that a jar limit was soon enacted to ensure there was enough to go around.
While they are concocting the sauce, Bennett said the gang will go through the typical litany of questions by curious tourists.
“Some have heard of apple butter, but have never seen it,” Bennett said. “People come up, and the first thing they ask is what we are making. They might think we are doing our laundry.”
By the end of the Q and A, one thing remains the same: the demand for good old-fashioned apple butter.
“To this day, it’s still the same stuff that makes the flatlanders go wild,” Bennett said. “We are trying to sell a good product for people who come down from the East. We try to add a little mountain flair to it. So far, we’ve been doing a good job.”