For The Love Of Yogurt

I was never a fan of yogurt (too sour, too runny!) until I went to Greece. I put a little of what looked like sour cream into my bowl at a breakfast bar and wrote home about it later, explaining that I had tasted real yogurt and had decided to stay in Greece forever.

“Dear Family … I have fallen in love with a bowl of yogurt …”

America used to be less enthusiastic about embracing new foods. Our English roots dictated our food choices for more than two centuries. The Puritans clung to old traditions and declared “savory” to be a four-letter word.

But thanks to returning soldiers from World War II-especially those who served in Europe-things began to change. They had sampled French sauces and Italian bread while they were away and wanted something more than mashed potatoes when they sat back down at their own tables.

And we can thank our immigrants for our food evolution, too. In the 19th century, they brought boatloads of wursts and marinated meats and ideas about dough and their bags of saffron to our country. Diversity became a part of American kitchens.

So what took yogurt so long to evolve?

To really understand the finer points of Greek yogurt, you’d have to transport yourself to one of Greece’s hilly and romantic towns-like Nafplio. There you’d wander down narrow stone streets in the shadow of a medieval fortress while looking for the local yogurt factory. If you could spare the time, you might help milk the goats, haul the milk up the big hill and watch the ancient process of straining the whey right out of the yogurt.

That’s what makes it Greek yogurt. It’s all in the straining.

While it’s still warm, the yogurt mixture is strained to remove the whey and concentrate the yogurt mass. The longer you strain it, the thicker – and more expensive – it becomes. It takes 3 to 4 pounds of milk to make a pound of Greek yogurt, which is why it costs more than the watery stuff we’re used to.

When Dannon introduced its yogurt to Americans in 1942, it was a flop, according to the New York Times, so they added fruits and sugar to make it more palatable to our less than sophisticated taste buds.

But the tide has turned for a yogurt that has the consistency of creme fraiche.

We can’t seem to get enough of it. Greek yogurt now represents nearly a quarter of the $6.8 billion spent on yogurt in the U.S. every year. A Wall Street Journal article called this growth spurt “nothing more than astronomical.”

Of course, this is nothing new to the dairy farmers in New York state.

New York is now home to 29 yogurt-producing plants, and they produced 553 million pounds of yogurt in 2011, which is the year they started producing twice as much as they produced in 2005.

Someone is eating a lot of yogurt.

And every new job created in the dairy industry spurs almost five additional jobs in the state, in what are called “spin off” jobs.

It seems Greek yogurt has been a good thing for everyone.

It’s also chock full of protein and has low fat, which is why they’d like to see it in school cafeterias.

But the golden product is not without its problems.

At the state’s first yogurt summit last August (yes, yogurt has its own summit now), Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced several proposals that would help dairy farmers get in on the yogurt action by allowing them to increase the size of their dairy herds.

Last week, a coalition of environmental groups weighed in on the proposal by way of an 80-page formal comment.

“What are you going to do with all the cow waste?” they’d like to know.

The coalition claims that the potential extra billion pounds of cow waste per year could contaminate drinking water, create toxic algae and possibly pollute the air.

I’m all for living by reasonable standards, but it’s time to come up with creative solutions to handle these concerns in the name of jobs and progress (and good yogurt).

As reported in The Post-Journal, Sen. Chuck Schumer is trying to revive a federal loan program that would provide upfront cash for dairy farmers to construct biodigesters, which convert organic waste to fertilizer and biogas-a renewable source of electric and heat energy.

And all that whey that is strained from the yogurt? It can also be converted into renewable energy.

The senator’s proposal shows how government and business can work together to create environmentally friendly solutions that improve the financial health of our state and its residents.

We’ve got a great opportunity here, the governor says, to be known as the “yogurt state,” which seems a little more inclusive than the icon associated with us now – which of course, would be the apple.

I think it’s time we gave the apple a little competition.