Once a year, Peggy Paape makes enough applesauce to feed an army.
On a recent fall day, she and five friends washed, peeled, sliced and cooked a bushel of Granny Smith and McIntosh and a half-bushel of Jonathans.
How many apples?
"You don't want to know," said Peggy, a military wife, a counselor "by trade," and mother of four girls, 26, 24, 17 and 12. Her applesauce-making brigade is co-workers from the Scott Air Force Base Thrift Store, where she volunteers.
"I am always making food and bringing it," she said. "That's the way I grew up. My kids are spoiled rotten. I sometimes make them breakfast in bed. I get up at 4:30. I get up so early because as a kid, I had chores before school. It's just how I wake up. It makes sense to me. I make jams. I quilt."
After she shared her applesauce with co-workers a couple years ago, she got rave reviews even from those who usually don't like it.
"They said, 'Would you teach us?' I said, 'Absolutely.'"
Peggy showed them how to make three varieties -- cinnamon, caramel and raspberry, then sent them home with containers of each.
This year, they were back for more.
By 10 a.m., the women around the kitchen table were snacking and talking. Marsha Palmer, of Shiloh, sat alongside daughter Chastity Stemm-Randle. Chastity's 4-week-old baby slept nearby.
"It's us celebrating friendship," said Peggy. "We're Navy, Army, Air Force. It's all mixed together. This is what brings us together. There are so many talented ladies. (Carol paints. Chastity does scrapbooking. Marsha is a jack of all trades.)
"We share different things. This is my thing to share."
As hostess, Peggy provided snacks, a lunch of homemade bread, chicken salad, fruit, vegetables from the garden, peach crisp and applesauce. She also gave each woman an apron.
"I tend to wipe my hands on the front of my clothes," she said.
"Peggy even made her an apron," said Chastity, of baby Destiny.
"Of course, she did, she's Peggy," said Marsha, who grew up in Alton. "When we had an Oktoberfest birthday at the thrift shop, Peggy made everything,"
"Even at the thrift shop, she will prepare a plate and you will feel like you are at a restaurant," said Carol. "It's so beautiful."
The women play bunco together, participate in Relay for Life (a fund-raiser to fight cancer) and help each other at every turn.
When Peggy's family moved into their current home, friends came with trucks to help.
"A day later, I was in Poland on a mission trip," said Peggy. "We took care of orphans through our church. Because they helped, I got to sleep one night at the new house before I left."
The friendships are part of the reason Tammy Bailey, of Mascoutah, moved back to the area.
"My husband's last duty assignment was Washington state," said Tammy, originally from Detroit. "He said when he was coming up on retirement, 'Where do you want to go? I said, 'I like the women I hung out with (at Scott) ... We are going to stay here for a while. I got rid of all the boxes that a military wife never gets rid of."
Tammy, who also served five years in the Air Force, is a fan of Peggy's caramel applesauce.
"Last year, I was eating it when it was hot," she said. "Peggy is very creative. This stuff is incredible."
"The regular tastes just like pie filling to me." said Carol Carlson, a nurse who lives in Swansea.
"This is my family, my military family," said Peggy, who grew up on a farm in Waupun, Wis. "On my worst day and my best day, they put up with me and cheer me on.
"My family is far away. I always share. The (applesauce-making) tradition started with my daughters when they were little."
Husband Bill was stationed at Fort McCoy, a Wisconsin Army base.
"We went to pick apples. They have beautiful orchards there," she said.
Peggy used trial and error to come up with her applesauce recipes that combine tart and sweet apples.
"I am always up for trying new things," said Peggy. "I am an organic gardener and seed saver. The last garden I had was a couple of acres. I had a greenhouse.
"Our running joke is, 'Come January. Mom gets dirty magazines.' They are on dirt. I have a worm farm downstairs. Trays are stacked on top of each other. All my scraps, I feed them. They eat and do worm castings. I can sell the worm castings. They're like gold (for enriching soil)." Conversation moved from how to season cantaloupe (Marsha uses pepper) to how to make the government work.
"I honestly think they should let us run the country for a week," said Tammy. "There would be a balanced budget: If you are not doing what you said you would do, you are not getting paid."
Then, it was time for the division of labor.
"If you want to work me, you better work me now," said Carol, who cares for a disabled boy at night, and usually sleeps part of the day.
"I need someone to wash the apples and take the stickers off," said Peggy.
Carol volunteered. The others lined up behind apple peelers attached to the kitchen island. Chastity peeled by hand. Long, worm-like strands of apple peel filled a bowl.
"The peel is our apple butter, the schnitzen," said Peggy, who manned the two Dutch ovens, stirring a pot of cinnamon and one of caramel applesauce when she wasn't filling her apron with apples, moving from sink to table.
Occasionally, cooks switched jobs. An hour into it, Carol announced: "The apples are washed. Now, I can go home and go to sleep."
Susan Brown, a mother of three from O'Fallon, replaced Carol in the mix. Originally from San Antonio, she and her family moved to the area in 2006.
"I would consign some items at the thrift shop," she said. "The ladies always seemed to have fun and were nice. I was looking for something to do. This is a perfect fit."
The thrift shop's earnings are donated to the Scott Spouses Club.
"It goes into a general pot and they donate it out."
The money funds scholarships, helps schools with projects and goes to other charitable causes, such as Fisher House, McDonald House, food pantries and scouting.
Just before noon, the caramel applesauce was just about ready. Peggy gave everyone a sample.
"What do you think, Tammy?"
"I am happy," she said. "Can I have it in an IV?"