Preserving Milk the Old Way – with Ethyle Giuseppie and Nathan Vergin, Greene County and Albemarle County

by Nan Janney

Two interviews. Two generations of milk preservationists, seventy years apart.  

Ethyle Cole Giuseppie

During my interview with Ethyle, we spent an hour talking, and at least another one driving round Greene County visiting the places that meant the most to her.  Her birthplace, – a log cabin she still owns and rents out — the church she still goes to, and the new PVCC satellite campus that she had just donated $500,000 to help build.  As she was driving us around, we talked a lot about the foods her family used to grow and subsisted upon.  Her parents had over 100 apple trees; the thin-skinned, green kind and she could still place the site of the orchard, even though the area has transitioned back into forest. 

At some time during the 1940’s when Ethyle was in her twenties, she bought her first farm for $8,000. During World War II, the Women’s Land Army (WLA) was formed after many male farm workers joined or were drafted into the military.  As part of the Emergency Farm Program, millions of women were recruited, trained and placed on farms. [1]  It is unclear clear whether Ethyle was a part of this recruitment effort, but it is likely she was influenced by the new opportunities for women farmers. 

Ethyle’s stories were full of richly detailed food memories; like when she was 10 and rode on horseback to the mill with sacks of corn to be processed; about her step-brother for whom she cared while her parents worked out in the field.  How he would sit on her lap, and eat right out of the same plate.  The bond was firm, so that he only liked to eat the kinds of food she liked, even as an adult. The food, those two ate together, was a life-long connection.

But, the part I loved the most was the part she seemed to remember with the most endearment, the memory of her mother preserving milk by letting it go sour.  She pined over the memory of the smell of it, the way it made home-baked bread taste, and how her mother used to add fresh milk to the pitcher everyday, on top of the previous day’s milk.  She was convinced that all of the “germs, that bacteria” found in this kind of milk product are what has made her live so long and remain in such good health at 94.

Leaving the interview in the past seemed slightly incomplete, because one of the purposes of discussing heritage, at least in the terms of our class, is to find an applicable use for it now.  I doubt there are many people who would leave milk on the counter to sour anymore.  For one, the old fashioned process of souring milk means the milk has to be raw; and two, politics has gotten in the way of people being able to buy heritage, or raw, milk.   We just do not need to sour milk that way anymore unless we have a particular taste for it. What we need is to understand that there are natural processes within our food system that may work as well or better than chemical or –in the case of sour milk– cultured interventions.  Finding out if someone was still making sour milk – and how and why– seemed like a logical next step. 

Nathan Vergin

I walked into the barn as Nathan was finishing one of the daily milkings. The pump was on, which luckily proved to be no competition for Nathan’s booming voice.  His family came in very quietly a short while after the interview began. It was going to be a family interview, as long as I promised not to focus the camera on his wife, Elizabeth. 

I could have talked with Nathan all day.  He has a Joel Salatin-esque quality about him. Perhaps, unsurprisingly, given that he is a former intern of Polyface.  He’s smart and engaging, passionate about his farm and the work he does, confident in the quality of his product, and eager to talk about the state of our food system.  He would be a great spokesperson for the raw milk movement and small dairy farmers, in general.

He showed me batches of sour milk that were a couple of days old, letting me taste one of them, which had a wonderful, sour cream-like taste.  He said that most people bought sour milk nowadays to make pancakes, or bake scones and bread. He continued making a heritage food for a few people, because they liked it.  He had a relationship with them, thus made the time – no small investment on a dairy farm – to honor their request. 

We discussed the inherent risks involved in our food system. No matter the process, there are always going to be some risks.  He said that large-scale industrial processing techniques are killing the life out of our food.  Through irradiation, ultra-pasteurization and other techniques — processes that extend the shelf life of food to some unnatural science fiction-like point — our food had become sterile.  And at that point, why would we want to eat it?