By Carol Cowan
When tragedy and illness struck Cumberland County Farm Bureau member Yolanda Heuser’s life, she found comfort and healing in a surprising source: jars upon jars of rich, delicious homemade apple butter.
As far back as she can remember, Yolanda Heuser’s mother and grandmother gardened, canned and made apple butter for their families. But Heuser never imagined herself carrying on that tradition – that is, until a couple of years ago.
“My grandparents were born in the 1800s. My grandmother had 11 children in the heart of the Depression, and they just had to do what they had to do to survive. She used everything. When the apples fell, making apple butter was what you did to preserve something for your family,” Heuser says. “My father died when I was seven, and my mother raised us singlehandedly. She raised chickens and pigs and cows and had a big garden; that was just a part of our lives.
“But times change,” she continues. “It wasn’t something I intentionally set out to do just because I was the third generation.”
Actually, Heuser and her husband, Bud, agreed to make apple butter for the 2010 Homesteads Apple Festival in Crossville because someone asked them for help. The timing turned out to be providential.
“My mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in 2006, and she did OK for three years. But in November of 2009, she started getting really bad and had to go into a nursing home. It was devastating. It was like a death, and yet she was still here,” Heuser says.
Meanwhile, her own health began to decline, as she began to lose weight and became easily fatigued. Thinking it was just the stress of her mother’s illness, Heuser did not see a doctor until several months later when she developed severe pain in her upper back and found it difficult to breathe. Finally, after extensive testing, her doctor delivered some difficult news.
“The doctor looked at me and said, ‘You have got, more likely than not broncho-alveolar carcinoma. It is a genetic cancer; it is not environmentally induced. There’s nothing you’ve done to bring this on, and there’s no cure. You will not be taking chemotherapy, because it does not respond to chemo. You have to have part of your lung removed, and you have to have it done now,’ ” she recalls.
As she prepared for surgery, Heuser researched her condition. What she learned was grim indeed. The type of cancer doctors suspected she had was likely to come back, and more and more of her lung tissue would have to be removed, eventually requiring a lung transplant.
“In the meantime, we’re doing apple butter,” Heuser says. “But what started out as just a venture to help this lady at the apple festival in Crossville ended up saving my life. As I would do the things that I had seen my mom do, it was like she was standing right there beside me. As I would tighten the lids on those jars of apple butter, it was just like the way she did it. All those years of seeing her do all of her canning came back to me, just like second nature. It was just like my mama was there with me, guiding me through all of it, because of everything she had done and taught me. It was the most healing thing I’ve ever done. I know it sounds way out in left field, but it got me through.”
During surgery, Heuser’s doctors removed a tumor from her lung, but what they found was not the aggressive cancer they had seen on the scans. It was diagnosed as a “necrotizing granuloma,” a dead, benign tumor. Heuser calls it a miracle.
“God healed me,” she says. “I had lung cancer, and God healed me.”
Because making apple butter was such a meaningful part of getting through that year of loss, grieving, sickness and healing, Heuser decided to keep it up. She attended a University of Tennessee Extension Service class at the Ellington Agricultural Center in Nashville and got her kitchen certified by the Tennessee Department of Agriculture in order to sell her apple butter commercially.
Although she created her own recipe, she honors her mother, Christine, with the name of her product: Ma Maw ’Teen’s Old Fashioned Apple Butter. And she honors her history by using traditional cooking methods.
Heuser and her husband buy their apples from a local orchard – eight bushels are required per “cooking.” Then they wash them, and, using a small peeler that hooks onto the kitchen table, they peel, core and slice the apples one by one. The apples, along with 20 pounds of sugar and a gallon of pure apple juice, go into a 15-gallon pot to cook down.
“My husband and I take turns, but you stand there with a huge paddle and you stir and you stir and you stir,” Heuser says. “It’s all manual; there’s nothing automatic about it.”
Then she adds her own secret blend of spices and continues cooking the mixture until it reaches the perfect consistency. It takes about eight hours to finish one batch, which makes between 80 and 88 pints of apple butter. In 2011, they made 10 batches and sold more than 900 jars at festivals around the state.
When it comes to comfort food, it’s hard to beat a slather of apple butter atop a steaming biscuit. For Yolanda Heuser, the comfort goes way beyond flavor. “Apple butter’s been good to me,” she says.
How to Buy Apple Butter
Ma Maw ’Teen’s Old Fashioned Apple Butter is not available in stores, but you can buy it – and see how it’s made – at the Homesteads Apple Festival in Crossville, September 22-23, 2012, at the Cumberland Homesteads Historic District.
The Heusers also sell directly from their kitchen. In order to preserve the meaning and history of their craft and to keep from being overwhelmed by a large-volume business, they decided not to build a website. However, customers can call their office to arrange a time to buy direct from the pantry shelves. Contact Bud Heuser at (931) 484-7317.
Where to Buy Apple Butter
The Heusers only make apple butter in small batches, but here are a few other sources for Tennessee-made apple butter:
Apple Butter Festival, Oct. 6, White Bluff, TN
Unicoi County Apple Festival, Oct. 6, Erwin, TN
Applewood Farmhouse, Sevierville, TN
Sweetwater Valley Farm, Philadelphia, TN
White’s Old Fashioned Apple Butter, Russellville, TN
Paris Florist and Gifts, Paris, TN