Metro-East Living

Apples don’t fall far from the family tree

Family's apple butter-making adventure

Relatives spend two days in October cooking and visiting. Tradition is 80 years old.
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Relatives spend two days in October cooking and visiting. Tradition is 80 years old.

You can’t have a family apple butter-making event for 80 years without having a few good stories.

Just ask descendents of the Aerne and DeGonia families.

Close to a hundred of them gathered in the side yard and driveway of Kris Loewe and Deb Aerne’s Glen Carbon home on Oct. 10, a cool, crisp Saturday morning.

“It’s not always this beautiful weather,” said Jeff Hoelter, 67, of Georgetown, Texas.

“Hence, the tarp,” said Brian Orr, 55, of Highland. “One time it was over here between the houses. It rained so hard there was a stream going through. Someone made wooden boats.”

“It took six boys to carry (the pot) into the garage when we were getting ready to can,” said Jeff.

Another year, Uncle Al Hoelter, now 93, lost his keys when packing a coffee pot to go home.

“We don’t use the same coffee pot every year,” said Jorja Dickemann, 60, a Glen Carbon village trustee and Deb’s sister and next door neighbor. “We got the box out a few years later and there were his keys.”

By the time Uncle Al got them back, he didn’t need them.

“He didn’t have the same car anymore,” said a guy in a gray sweatshirt.

The annual apple butter event takes place the second Saturday in October. Family members pick up about 11 bushels of Jonathan apples from Soulard Market in St. Louis on Friday and gather to peel, core and slice that night. Brian estimated there were 40 people sitting in a circle in the Aernes’ garage getting the job done. The Cardinal-Cubs playoff game was on in the background.

“We finished by the eighth inning,” said Brian, “then stood around and watched a 12-inch TV.”

When his mom Pat was alive, she’d take some home at the end of the night, bake two pies and bring them the next morning to share.

“Every time she put them out on the table, her brother, my Uncle Jack DeGonia, would take and hide them.”

378 How many half pints of apple butter they made

93 Age of oldest attendees, Al and Roselee Hoelter

By 5:30 a.m. Saturday, a hardy few were on hand to get the fire started beneath a pot of apples that would cook all day. Usually Uncle Al, of Granite City, is among the early birds.

“Lighting the fire in the morning, that’s my favorite,” said Al, wearing a red apple logo T-shirt under his jacket. “This is the first one I remember missing.”

“We did it right,” said his son Jeff. “We put your level on and everything. Last night, we started out and forgot to put liners in the buckets. If you had been there, we wouldn’t have forgotten.”

Jeff moved to Texas in 1989 because of his IBM job.

“I make it just about every year,” he said. “My mother (Roselee) is an Aerne. We usually spend right at a week. My wife’s mom lives in Belleville. We spend time with her.”

The beginning

Clarence DeGonia, Rose Aerne and John DeGonia started the tradition in 1935. They took turns inviting family to make apple butter in their Granite City backyards.

“It’s just something we have been doing for 80 years,” said Brian, a grandson of John. “It’s a good time and a long-standing tradition. It’s the only time we see a vast majority of our relatives. It doubles as a family reunion. Years ago, it was a Granite City thing. Now, we have people from Chicago, Texas, Oregon, Nashville, Washington D.C. Almost all come for this.

“We have family members making the same recipe in Camdenton, Missouri.”

By 10 a.m. Saturday morning, a circle of stirrers took turns with the giant paddle. Some wore Cardinals gear. A guy with a Cubs hat put together a puzzle at a picnic table. Others looked at a scrapbook. Besides photos, the book included the original “outside apple butter” recipe, history and a yearly log of information (including weather conditions, gallons of apples peeled — usually between 55 and 60 — and amounts of ingredients used). The original paddle was made with a clothesline prop for a handle. In 1969, they quit washing the apples. In 1978, they started using a gas burner instead of a log fire. “Lots of rebellion from a few,” it was noted.

Dee Dee DeGonia-Domescik arrived with a bouquet fall-themed cake pops to share. Jan Casey, in an apple-appliqued white sweatshirt, brought a huge container of popcorn.

“I am the popcorn lady,” said Jan. “One year I just thought it would be a good idea to have popcorn. I’ve been making it for close to 30 years. It was such a hit, I kept bringing it. I made it this morning on my stove.”

It’s just something we have been doing for 80 years. It’s a good time and a long-standing tradition. It’s the only time we see a vast majority of our relatives. It doubles as a family reunion.

Brian Orr on the proud tradition

Snacks abound. Hot dogs and hamburgers come later. Lunch is a community pot of chili cooked over a wood fire.

“Some bring mild. Some bring hot,” said Brian. “Once you mix it all together, it’s just right. If you want to have chili for lunch, put some in the pot. We brought chili for four.”

Nikki Domescik, 21, had just enough hand peeking from the sleeve of her pink sweater to stir the chili pot. The SIUE nursing student took a break from her studies to be there. Her great-grandpa John DeGonia was one of the originals.

What does she like best about the event?

“All of it,” said Nikki, who tops toasted bagels with her apple butter. “All the family coming together. Cousins, aunts and uncles. I see most of them once a year.”

As she stirred, Dolores DeGonia poured in her chili. They tried to figure out their connection.

“I think she’s a great-aunt,” said Nikki. Or maybe a a third cousin or a second cousin, once removed.

By noon, sliced apples from the last of about 11 five-gallon buckets were going in. As the apples cook down, there’s time to throw a football, sit on the driveway and visit or gather for a family photo. Good-natured ribbing is part of the day. A sign read: “Owner offers lodging for family members: Cub fans, $1,000 a night; Cards fans free lodging.”

Uncle Al and wife Roselee, both 93, were the oldest on hand. Jim and Cate Barnes, of Chicago, brought the youngest, 8-month-old Ethan James Barnes.

Under the tarp, Mason DeGonia, 24, a fifth-generation apple butter maker, and girlfriend Angela Ochoa, 37, both held onto the 8-foot long paddle.

It was Angela’s first time at the event.

“It’s awesome,” said Angela, a teacher’s aide. “ I have never tasted it, but it smells pretty good. (Mason) said actually this is what we are going to be doing the whole weekend. Last night, we cut up apples.”

“I’ve been doing this since I was little,” said Mason. “It’s something you look forward to every October.

“It’s time with family that you don’t usually get.”

Outdoor apple butter

The family follows a hand-written recipe, but ingredient amounts vary, depending on the apples’ sweetness.

“If the stuff we made last year was a little too sweet, we say, ‘Let’s tone it down,’” said Jeff.

“Some like it really sweet and lobby for more sugar,” said Brian. “The amount of sugar, that amazes me.”

“We used 25 pounds of sugar, maybe 30 this year,” said Jorja, who likes hot biscuits with warm apple butter. “I am 60. We have books that go back to when I was a kid. This year the apples were juicier than normal. We added more sugar than normal.”

Then comes cinnamon, star anise and cinnamon sticks.

“If you get a stick in your jar, that’s a real keeper,” said Brian. “You can use it to dip in and stick it in your mouth. Greatest thing since sliced toasts.”

When it’s ready to can, families jockey for position for a table close to the kettle.

“The Cubs fan (Uncle Dave DeGonia) out here has a pocketful of red hots.” said Brian. “He tosses them into the pots, and launches them at individual jars. When canning, you have red hot blockers in front, trying to block.”

He had an assist this year from Dawn DeGonia.

“She dropped in handfuls,” said Brian. “They’re nothing more than sugar with cinnamon in it. You don’t know they’re in there. It’s more of a joke.”

The Aerne-DeGonia apple butter makers ended up with 378 half pints, shared by all.

“It was very good, really sweet,” said Brian.

Maureen Houston: 618-239-2664, @mhouston15

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