After a powerful, wild thunderstorm hit our area last weekend we got a peak at what life would have been like before electricity. People’s reactions were predictable: the complaints about the lack of air conditioning in the 100 degree heat and laments about our dependency on power were everywhere. Amid all that, and the admittedly sweltering heat, I found it a pretty interesting experience.

Having grown up in the northeast and spent my adult life in cooler climates where winter storms are prevalent it was a very new experience for me to deal with power loss in the heat. When your power goes out in the middle of a Maine winter you are not concerned about the milk in your fridge or the air conditioning- freezing pipes and people are the bigger issue. Summer heat provides a whole other set of problems, but for me (being the dairy dork that I am) the most interesting had to do with milk.

We were lucky enough to have a small generator loaned to us by Sam’s uncle which kept our fridges and freezers running, a few hours at a time, so I didn’t lose any of Sapphire’s milk. But the prospect certainly got me thinking about dairy in the 19th century and the way we consume milk today.

Today, when most of us think of milk we think of drinking it cold, and tasting fresh, sweet liquid- maybe with a couple of chocolate chip cookies- but this was not how dairy products were consumed for most of human history. Prior to the urban- and suburbanization of our population and the takeover of our agricultural system by big business, most families either had a cow, or got milk from a neighbor, and refrigeration as we know it was non-existent. It may have consisted of a spring house, like the one we have on the farm here, or other crude means of temperature control. Homemade cheeses were a staple, and dairy beverages consisted mainly of buttermilk (the kind you get when you make butter, not the cultured buttermilk we are accustomed to today) and sour milk. That sounds strange to us, but what we think of as sour milk- that revolting taste of milk gone very, very bad in the back of your fridge- would not have existed then. Raw milk does not go “bad” in the same way pasteurized milk does, and of course pasteurization was unheard of until the late 1800′s. Raw milk sours because lactic bacteria that live naturally in milk, if given the chance (say by not keeping your milk below 40 degrees) turn lactose into lactic acid, causing the pH of the liquid to drop. It would have tasted like a less sour version of what we consider buttermilk today. In contrast, pasteurized milk which is sterile does not become more acidic with time- instead it is colonized by nasty things living in your refrigerator which give it that lovely rancidity.

In addition to thinking about the way we consume dairy products, I was very aware of the issue of water and sanitation before electricity. Not being on “town water”, no power means no running water out here in the country. As a result I spent a good deal of time hauling water from our spring-fed watering trough in the barnyard. Although the house here had gravity fed running water fairly early, it certainly came from a spring and as such had none of the modern conveniences like a filter or mandatory well testing. I am very careful about sanitation with my milking equipment, but before the days of chlorine sanitizer (and pasteurization for that matter), soap and water would probably have been the best means of keeping the milking pail free of pathogens. The same would hold true for vegetables and meats- many of which would hang in the basement curing all summer and winter. Doesn’t that make you wonder what we’re doing wrong if today, with all our modern sanitation and technology, food related illness is on the rise (although very rarely from milk or cheese I might add!)?

All in all our four days without power were hardly the hardship most people made it out to be, and provided some very interesting insights into our severe dependence of modern conveniences and the modern way of thinking about refrigeration and sanitation. Of course, fascinating as it was, I was as glad as anyone when the lights came back on!