Ackermans’ apple butter fest is a fall tradition of family, food and friendship

Photo by Michele Murphy The youngest Ackerman gets his first taste of homemade apple butter. 

 

By MICHELE MURPHY

SHEFFIELD – As Jean Ackerman makes her way toward the copper kettle, steam pours from the molten contents inside and about 100 sets of eyes follow her every move.

A check for just the right consistency. A nod. “It’s ready,” she proclaims.

The nod by the 83-year old matriarch of one of Sheffield Village’s first and largest families, sets into motion a human assembly line prepared to fill more than 150 jars of freshly-made apple butter as it is scooped from the kettle. Ackerman family members and friends herald the arrival of fall the past 20 years by making apple butter together.

Just two days earlier, Jean looked out at the quiet pavilion area nestled between apple and plum trees and bordering a deep pond filled with fish and turtles. She laughed as she described how different the tranquil scene would become. As she predicted, it was a hub of activity last Saturday for those who gathered to share in this rich family tradition.

The 40-acre Ackerman Farm on Abbe Road was settled by Jean’s great, great grandfather in 1845. She lives in the original home where he lived and where she raised 11 children, while also working as a night nurse for 20 years. As if that wasn’t accomplishment enough, at age 70, she ran for and was elected to Sheffield Village Council. She begins her fourth term in January, having no opposition in the Nov. 7 election.

Last Thursday, however, she was focused on the myriad details it takes to fill nearly 120 half-pint and 36 pint jars with freshly-made apple butter, much less preparing to feed more than 100 family and friends who show up to take a turn stirring the apple concoction to perfected consistency.

“Between now and tomorrow, I have to get everything off that table,” she said referring to the rectangular wooden table that nearly consumes every inch of the kitchen floor. Ten chairs fit comfortably around it, and she says those seats will be filled Friday evening as more than 2,000 apples are peeled and sliced, then stored overnight.

At 5 a.m. Saturday, longtime family friends Stuart Bauman and his son, Kyle, arrived to start a log fire. They were joined by Jean’s grandson Zach Brezinski, who runs the farm, and his 8-year old son, Grant. They pour apple cider into a 30-gallon hammered copper kettle, that is largely blackened on the outside from years of use. They wait until it begins to boil.

In the dark, they use a small tractor to haul the chilled apples from the house a few hundred feet to the fire and awaiting kettle. By this time, more Ackermans and friends have arrived. It’s not even 8 a.m. As apples are added, they begin to stir using a large wooden paddle, hand carved by Jean’s youngest child, Dan. Another of her sons, Max, explains stirring must be constant otherwise the sugar from the cider and apples will burn at the bottom of the huge kettle.

This is the first year Grant is old enough to help stir. He grips the big paddle, which is nearly the size of a boat oar, and begins. A short time later, Dan slowly adds sugar to ensure the contents do not boil over.

As morning becomes afternoon, the crowd swells. Each arrives with a dish to share. On one side of the pavilion, a 20-foot long shelf bulges with food. Desserts are squeezed onto a nearby picnic table.

Jean sits at one of those picnic tables and her smile conveys her joy at being surrounded by four generations of Ackermans and many friends. She is eager to introduce new friends to old friends.

Around 3 p.m., she walks towards the fire to see whether the apple butter is ready. She and daughter, Ann, use a scoop to remove a bit from the kettle. It cools, they both test it and declare it needs more time. So folks settle in for more food and conversation. Some have taken their kids on an improvised hay ride on a flatbed pulled by Zach’s tractor. Others have brought fishing tackle and are casting into the pond. Kids play on piles of dirt while others walk the property checking out the resident pigs and cows. Some adults have clustered around a bar tucked into the corner of the pavilion, built by Max following his return home ten years ago. From the looks and sound, there’s a lot more bantering than drinking going on. Topics range from the weather to work to asking about an old neighbor or schoolmate.

An hour later, two picnic tables are shoved together in an ‘L’ formation and covered. It’s time. Daughters Ann, Sue and Barb are old hands at figuring out how to set up the assembly line required to quickly remove the molten apple butter from the kettle to sterilized jars. Ackerman boys – Dan, John and Zach – also make up part of “the line.”

The heavy kettle is carefully lifted off the fire by inserting the wood paddle through the handle so it can be carried to the front of the line.

Barb and Dan have prepared boiling water in two large ceramic pots set on a kerosene stove right behind the tables. Each jar is placed in the scalding water to sterilize it, then Barb uses tongs to get each jar to Zach who is using a ladle and funnel to fill jars with extremely hot apple butter. Ann and Linda Pierse team to wipe drips from the side of the jars then pass them on to sister, Sue, and Sandy Cifranic. They sterilize rubber lids in a dish of boiling water before fitting them on top of each jar. Then Etta Ramos and Natalie Cifranic quickly twist lids onto the tops of each passing jar. A granddaughter, Clare Brezinski, stands at the end of the line where she places each sterilized, filled, sealed apple butter jar into formation, separating pints from half-pints in order to quickly count the number of jars on the table.

Ears are perked. Jean is listening for “the plink.” When a jar “plinks,” it means the seal is set, she says. Etta, who is still standing on line, turns to Jean and says, “I hear plinking.” Jean says she hears it, too. Ann, who has taken a momentary break from her task at the front of the line, stands in front of the jars. “They’re plinking.” She just smiles at her mom who smiles back.

Once the jars are filled, Jean calls out, “Here comes the bread.” Each guest is invited to grab a chunk and reach into the kettle where the last bits of apple butter can be found. Two of Jean’s great grandchildren, Ben and Pete, are old enough this year to take their first taste. Their mom, Lexi, offers them bits of bread covered with apple butter and two more Ackermans become indoctrinated with the family tradition.

Barb remarks how thrilled she is to see her kids and nieces and nephews so engaged in the process.

“It means the tradition will get passed on,” she says.

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