I’m the only person I know who began eating yogurt from a little wooden box.
It was the 1950s, and the contraption was the electric incubator my dad had rigged up in the garage. Its principle was simple. Place a bowl of milk inside with a small dab of yesterday’s batch, insert the makeshift thermostat to keep the temperature just right for yogurt-bearing bacteria, plug the whole thing into a light socket and in less than 24 hours you had a bunch of creamy white goop ready to be eaten with pleasure and ease.
So you can imagine my consternation when, 25 years later, the frozen yogurt craze began. Now everyone else was into yogurt, too. The truth, of course, was that what others called yogurt to me wasn’t yogurt at all. It was an overly sweet, sugary, colored dessert-like mess topped with odd bits and pieces of things designed to mask what little true-yogurtness remained. It was, in other words, a crass attempt to capitalize on my family secret by revealing it to the world in bastardized form.
Utterly disgusted with this new development, I turned my back on yogurt—frozen and otherwise—for years. Eventually, in fact, I almost forgot that the stuff had ever existed.
But today I bear glad tidings: Yogurt is back! It is the dawn of a new age; the thaw is finally over.
The story of yogurt is old: Most likely first fermented spontaneously by wild bacteria living on goat-skin bags, the earliest yogurt is believed to have been carried into Europe by the nomadic Bulgars who began migrating there in the second century and eventually settled in the Balkans.
Its consumption by early Turks is recorded in many books. The first written account of a European encounter with the ancient dish, however, occurs in French clinical history: To cure an upset stomach, a Turkish doctor allegedly prescribed yogurt as a remedy.
Indeed, its health benefits are legendary.
Containing live probiotic bacterial cultures, yogurt aids in digestion by helping to maintain a healthy balance among the 200-plus other kinds of bacteria living in our stomachs and intestines. It also has been investigated for possible roles in everything from improved immune function to the reduced risk of certain kinds of cancer.
Flash forward now to the early 1980s. A whole new generation of entrepreneurs stands poised to start selling yogurt, in its frozen form, to a whole new generation of consumers newly enamored with healthy foods, but relatively unfamiliar with their earthly charms. The one major obstacle to overcome is most people don’t like the culture’s tart taste. The solution: Dress it up to taste more like ice cream.
“If you go way back it was really an alternative frozen treat with less fat and fewer calories than ice cream,” says David Hall, vice president of marketing for TCBY, which pioneered the field by, among other things, marketing its product under a set of initials that originally stood for This Can’t Be Yogurt. “Our whole premise was, ‘Wow, this is so good you can’t believe it’s yogurt,’” Hall says.
The trick worked. Frozen (sweetened) yogurt became a catchword of the 1980s and ’90s with sales reaching $25 million in 1986 at growth rates in the triple digits. The market continued soaring at more than 200 percent a year until the early 1990s when it comprised roughly 10 percent of the country’s market in frozen desserts.