It’s rare that you can get me to eat anything probiotic, at least knowingly. But on a 99-degree day in New York City recently, I found myself needing to go in somewhere, anywhere, and get something cold. And thus it was that I encountered, in person, frozen kefir. Kefir, in case you’re wondering, is a kind of fermented milk and grain drink, which I bought frozen in an approximation of soft serve ice cream. (Soft serve, of course, was what I really wanted.) It wasn’t that bad; once I had covered its surface with Cap’n Crunch cereal and rainbow jimmies, it went down easily enough. It was cold, anyway. But what I didn’t know at the time was that I was eating the dessert of the future, or at least its cousin.
Or so I am led to believe, anyway, by numerous trend stories that have appeared recently. Kefir is still a fairly exotic product, but Greek yogurt, with hardly any sweetness at all, and no Cap’n Crunch to be found anywhere, has become so popular that it is credited with saving the dairy industry in some areas, and of wiping out the milk supply in others. Dannon has opened up a pilot shop for what will be a new national Greek yogurt chain. (Regular yogurt will be served there too.) Chobani, which is apparently the top-selling yogurt in the country, is opening up a store too. Even Fro-Yo giants like Pinkberry trying to get in on the action, adding Greek yogurt to their menus.Which I think is odd, because I don’t understand why anyone would actually like the way it tastes. (Check out this Youtube video, which gives some much-needed tips on “How to Make Greek Yogurt Taste Good.”)
The reason for the popularity of Greek yogurt, of course, is health. Unlike ordinary yogurt, the Greek variety is strained of excess liquid, which accounts for its thicker texture and its greater protein and probiotics count. Is it better for you than regular yogurt? Is regular yogurt better for you, for that matter, than ice cream? As with glutens, lactose, high fructose corn syrup, and various other food fiends, their effect on our systems are a matter of debate even among experts, and it’s easy to find forceful pronouncements for whichever position you feel like taking. In the case of Greek yogurt and its fermented cousins, they’re clearly less fattening than their better-tasting counterparts on the Mr. Softee truck, owing to their lesser concentrations of fat and sugar. But the mystique of probiotic foods may speak more to the power of taste cultures than bacterial ones.
I have eaten a lot of probiotic foods over the years, rarely by choice. Somebody once handed me a bottle of kombucha and told me it was Snapple, just to see me spit it out. (They did.) The fermented vegetables in kimchi are something you can’t really avoid if you are a food writer, however much you might want to. But yogurt is the food that I find hardest to avoid. I don’t like it. Even the kind with a layer of sweet fruit at the bottom isn’t sweet enough for me; Greek yogurt is even worse, with a sour tang that reverberates with every bite, making you long for the most vile processed pudding you can remember eating.
Of course, that’s part of its appeal. Greek yogurt belongs to that class of foods, along with fish sauce and runny cheese and the kind of chocolate that is composed of 99% cocoa solids, which mark one’s taste as grown-up. I personally detest them, but then I’m a vulgarian. I eat sybaritically, which is to say in a shallow, grossly pleasure-seeking way. I know that better men than me can enjoy desserts that aren’t sweet, meats that aren’t juicy, or even more advanced badges of gourmandism: foraged lichens, say, or fishes past the point of putrefaction. Unlike some pseudo-populist types, I don’t present my admittedly juvenile tastes as a badge of honor. But they incline me to doubt whether, in the absence of any compelling health reason to do so, so many people really prefer a product that is tart and savory to one that is sweet. Is this perhaps some sort of culinary masochism, like the burnt toast that pro-ana how-to forums recommend? How could taste change so quickly without there being an element of the perverse? I don’t claim to have the answer to this question. I merely raise it, from the vantage point of my own wide, sweet, unchallenging comfort zone, in the shadow of the Dairy Queen.