How making yogurt keeps my hope alive

jar of homemade yogurt with spoon it it

This essay is part of Motherwell’s Parenting and Food column.

By Daniela Elza

I’ve made yogurt for over twenty years. At first, I didn’t think much of it. My mom made yogurt, bread, and cheese. When my son weaned himself at nine months and wouldn’t take any milk, my mom, who happened to be visiting, made yogurt and fed it to him. He took to it. Then she left. I had to learn to make yogurt, and have made it ever since.

Under COVID-19 the whole business of making came into focus with a force. My son turned twenty-four this past year. It’s not an issue of survival anymore. Why do I still make yogurt?

The past eleven pandemic months have been busy with teaching online, learning curves, and much adrenaline. After eight hours in front of a screen, I don’t sound like myself, can barely string words together grammatically. My homegrown screen concussion, means you have to listen to what I mean, not what I say. You know what I mean?

I began to pay even more attention to things that need time and patience to make. Attention is the beginning of devotion, says Mary Oliver.

My kids still refuse to eat store-bought yogurt. I have myself to blame for fine-tuning their tastebuds to homemade food. Junk food here and there, but who will not be seduced into junk food once in a while, when it’s more readily available than hot lunch at school. When I was exhausted, when the last thing I wanted was to get up early to pack a hot lunch, I tried to get them to buy lunch from the cafeteria. My son would say: But why? Your food is much tastier. My friends line up to try it. I would smile, and pack a homemade hot lunch. After all, isn’t that how I was not fooled into eating food with a dangerously long shelf life, or “yogurt” with unrecognizable ingredients, which tasted more like custard?

If you know the taste of real yogurt, or homemade food, you don’t give it up easily.

When Danone decided to expand to the Bulgarian market, they had to learn to manufacture real yogurt. It’s hard to fool a nation who invented yogurt into buying artificially fabricated custard concoctions labeled yogurt. Even the bacteria is named after the place—Lactobacillus bulgaricus. You don’t mess with such culture. Except, it’s easy to mess with it. Raise a generation on un-yogurt, and you can sell them anything called yogurt. Making yogurt gained more significance when I lived in the States and was numbed into “convenience,” and fear from the Immigration & Naturalization Services. Don’t try this at home, was the motto. Making yogurt became a way of resisting.

Now we’re trying all sorts of things at home. 

To make yogurt you need a starter. I always keep a few scoops from the previous yogurt. Previous success propels. For beginners, if you don’t know anyone who makes yogurt, there are the freeze-dried bacteria you can get at stores that support making. Warm up the milk on medium heat. You cannot rush this. Otherwise, the milk will burn on the bottom of your pan. Use some of the warm milk to activate your starter. That gets the bacteria all excited—and curious. Along the way someone gave me a “yogurt maker.” I kept the thermometer from that contraption and continued to be the yogurt maker myself

They say hope is the last thing that dies. But who teaches you how to keep it alive? On purpose, like yogurt bacteria? Bombardment with bad news these days brings its own flavor of debilitating. Zombies stopped being funny when I realized we’re all being turned into zombies. Of course they want your brains. What better metaphor for the attention economy? I see it in the kids I teach. I call this effect the fried-brain syndrome. From imaginative, playful, and compassionate beings, they shrink into screen addicts, laser-focused on a single thought—more screen-time.

But kids love making things. What have we done to their brains? Some dream “big” now of becoming rich, or You-Tubers. Mostly, they are bored, and don’t know what to do with themselves. I ask them: What can you make with your hands and the super powers of your mind? 

Before large scale production, manufacturing was a thing of the hand. Manufactura in Latin means making by hand. When you manufacture things like bread, poems, or yogurt, you dwell in the present. You take pride in craftsmanship. This is essential to manufacturing meaning. That gets me out of bed, that’s the starter to my every day.

Sometimes I call my parents in Bulgaria while warming the milk. I swear those times the yogurt is tastier. My parents say things like: Those who sing do not think bad thoughts, or You cannot turn the sea to yogurt, but what if it is curdles? A Bulgarian saying which I discovered seems to link yogurt directly to hope. They also say: Do something nice and throw it on the trash heap. I was always puzzled about that one when I was a kid, but now I imagine a city dump with piles of lovely things we did for each other.  

Once the milk is the right temperature, add the bacteria and make a gentle swirl with a spoon. My mom makes a cross in the milk. I do that too. It is a ritual, a thread that connects us like a little prayer. I wrap the yogurt buckets in towels, and put them in a pre-warmed oven overnight. Make sure to leave the oven light on.  

The origins of yogurt are ancient. Central Asian herdsmen used animal stomachs to store their extra goat’s milk. Some of the milk in these skins became thick and tart, was edible, did not go bad. Perhaps that’s why it’s so good for your digestive system, the bacteria recognize each other. There’s a whole party in your gut, a reunion, a remembering. 

Attending to the small things I cannot doubt, I attend to my hope. The bacteria that make yogurt are invisible, but under the right conditions become visible through the work they do. Same goes for bread yeast, or cheese.

I begin to wonder what thoughts in my mind ferment hope, what thoughts nurture my delicate mental flora and fauna. Manufacturing yogurt, I manufacture hope—and sanity. Besides, it’s hard to feel useless, if you make something useful.

Does the same go for things like love, or democracy? You cannot see them, but you know them by the work they do. Our planet too thinks in bacteria, fungi, pH, mycelia, and viruses. To save a planet we have to think like a planet, attend to its small processes.

If you know the taste of real yogurt, or freedom, you won’t give it up easily. You can tell if what you are eating is yogurt, or custard, chemical soup, or lies. 

My husband used to say he wouldn’t leave me because he was hooked on my yogurt. That was funny, until he did leave. Now he makes yogurt. See what I mean? Once you know the good of something, you replicate it wherever you go.

Daniela Elza is a poet and creative non-fiction writer who teaches writing and speech arts in Vancouver, Canada. When she was little she spent many hours licking the spoons and pans around her mother in the kitchen, and carried the good of homemade food to her own family.

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