Photo: Alice Heun: Barn and Cows, 1934. by americanartmuseum, Smithsonian American Art Museum, creative commons, flickr
note: This is a true account of life on a small Missouri farm during the Great Depression, as told by Letty Owings, age 87. 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.
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.
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.