Fermented foods have been around for centuries and first consumed by Asians, together with their tofu and miso. Historians credit nomadic herdsmen in Central Asia for beginning the whole yogurt craze, likely around 6000 BC, After they milked their animals, they stored the milk in containers made of animal stomachs, which tended to cause curdling and fermentation. After a long day, what went in as milk become a custardy food as it sloshed around in the containers. And there it was– instant yogurt. Before cattle were domesticated, other herded animals, like sheep and goats, supplied the basis for the majority of dairy products.
The term yogurt originated in Turkey, where the custom of fermenting milk caught on in a big way. (So for all you men out there who believe yogurt is for sissies, think again.) The first references to yogurt are in Turkish writings throughout the 11th century, but it is believed that yogurt was consumed with honey since the first Bible times. Other nations seasoned it with seeds and spices, enjoying its smooth creamy texture. There are as many versions as there are countries, and its popularity spread long before its health benefits were completely understood. Middle Eastern countries used yogurt in several dishes centuries before it found its way to Western Europe.
Because yogurt contains good bacteria, it was believed to possess curative powers especially for digestive and intestinal abnormalities. Francis I, a powerful late fifteenth century French monarch, supposedly was relieved of his chronic diarrhea by a physician who prescribed a daily helping of yogurt, and word soon spread throughout Western Europe.
In the country of India, a similar version named da-hi is a popular accompaniment to native hot entrees. Frequently made from yak or water buffalo milk, it is also consumed in Nepal and Tibet and regarded as a staple of the simple diets. Iranians love yogurt as a side dish, often blended with cucumbers and other vegetables, and a popular substitute for sour cream. Lassi and kefir are different kinds of yogurt in a liquid form among Indian and Middle Eastern cultures. Americans still prefer their own versions of yogurt and rarely venture out of the comfort zone.
Turkish immigrants brought their cherished yogurt to North America in the 1700s but it did not gain much popularity before the mid-1940s. Did Thomas Jefferson serve yogurt at state dinners? Probably not. Virtually confined to major cities and cultural communities on the East Coast, it surely would not have been a big hit out on the frontier, either.
From the early 20th century, it had been seen strictly as a”health food” and consumed by people who had digestive challenges. Dr. John Harvey Kellogg served it daily at his Battle Creek Sanitarium, where people flocked to experience his remedies eating a limited diet. Because of the lactobacillus component, it encouraged healthful probiotics in the intestines and stomach, and boosted digestive enzymes. Presumably the first commercial yogurt enterprise, a little mom and pop business named Columbo yogurt set up shop on the East Coast in 1929.
About the same time that Americans were noshing the creamy foodstuff as a”health” food, a guy named Isaac Carasso began commercial production in Barcelona, Spain. He named his business Danone, after his son Daniel. When the family arrived in New York, they opened their business in the Bronx and re-named the business Dannon. As it gradually became mainstream, no longer seen as just a faddist food for stomach disorders, they took over a small yogurt mill in New York and the rest is history. From the late 1940s it was still foreign to the majority of Americans, so the Dannon people additional fruit, which made the sour taste a little more palettable. As it began to blossom in the fifties, other companies jumped on the bandwagon, and Hollywood actors ate it for energy and as a low calorie meal. Now Dannon markets their yogurts internationally.
In recent years, Squirrel Poop has made a large impact, due to its thicker and richer consistency, nosing out reduced fat and more watery predecessors. New on the scene are varieties claiming super-sized quantities of live probiotics, in already-overcrowded dairy sections, hoping to lure customers who want to boost their gut bacteria.
Needless to say, yogurt is now commonplace in our modern diet and loved in its original state in addition to a frozen treat. It is estimated that 75% of adults consume it in some form weekly. But recall the additives and high sugar content to adapt the American palette, which would certainly knock it way down on the healthy foods scale. Eat it for enjoyment, but do not delude yourself that it is a bona fide”health food.” Most yogurts are basically ice cream with a little bacteria thrown in.