I walk down the dairy aisle in the supermarket and I am pleased and gratified to see the amazing assortments of yogurt: Apple Crisp, Pink Cotton Candy, Black Forest, Blueberry, French Vanilla and Mango Burst! Hundreds of flavors! I feel that I had a tiny part in yogurt’s American success! And yogurt, in a way, changed the trajectory of my own life!
So I owe much to a specific Balkan bacteria, Bacillus Bulgaricus. Yes, Bacillus Bulgaricus, THANK YOU.
In the late 1940’s, when I was an English major at Brooklyn College, (Tuition $25.00 per year), I worked as a reporter on the college newspaper, the “Vanguard”. One day in the late 1940’s, my editor sent me down to the school cafeteria to investigate a weird new food they were carrying: YOGURT!
This may seem a minor academic event, but our college cafeteria was an unimaginative place of hardboiled eggs and sardine/lettuce salads. No delightful food had sullied the menu in years. There was absolutely nothing exciting to be bought. For someone like me who was hungry and had no money for lunch, there was a single advantage. If I went along with an over weight, dieting friend who bought a salad, I could dine royally on a mayonnaise sandwich composed of two free slices of fresh Jewish rye bread that accompanied her salad, slathered with mayonnaise!
Yogurt seemed exotic! The new food looked like and had the consistency of sour cream. I boldly and extravagantly bought a cup! It cost a quarter. But I was investing in my journalistic career! It tasted like sour cream vaguely but was not the same. Turned out that Yogurt was an East European favorite food apparently because it was remarkably healthful!
“Take a trip to Long Island City,” my editor advised. “The Dannon people want the word about their product to get around. They’ll be glad to see you. This may really be interesting. And you’ll get a healthful lunch!”
Better than mayonnaise sandwiches? I wondered. Well, different.
So I took the trip. A polite, heavily accented, young East- European gentleman told me that LIFE magazine reporters and photographers had preceded me there! LIFE! It was a big deal.
The Dannon spokesman then began to talk about yogurt. He explained that in the Balkans, yogurt was made from sour milk by natural processes: The presence of Bacillus Bulgaricus, a good bacteria common to the region turned sour milk into yogurt, a tasty, healthful food, because the bacteria prevent intestinal disturbances. Yogurt was a very popular food, a mainstay in the diet.
Donning a sanitary jacket, I was allowed inside the plant. I entered a room where the yogurt was bottled in the most sterile of atmospheres, where it was never touched by human hands. Even the bacteria culture (which is not indigenous and had to be added) was freshly made daily. Yogurt came in only TWO flavors, plain and strawberry.
My host was kind enough to treat me to TWO strawberry portions, which I declared delicious. While I was enjoying the yogurt, we talked and he confided that though Dannon had advertised their product extravagantly, the returns had been surprisingly poor. They had estimates of what a strong advertising campaign should bring in and for some reason theirs was not effective.
“May I see your ads?” I asked timidly. He nodded and brought several large rolled-up, poster- sized sheets. Each had an attractive picture of the Yogurt product and the legend,
EAT YOGURT – THE FOOD WITH BACTERIA IN IT!
I hesitated, but then persevered and said what I thought. “Americans don’t like bacteria,” I said. “They don’t think about good bacteria. They’re afraid of bacteria. Perhaps – if you emphasized that it was healthful and left out the bacteria….” I felt presumptuous and hoped I had not offended him. After all, what did I know about advertising?
He said nothing but looked thoughtful.
Thanking him for his time, I promised I’d send a copy of my story. We shook hands and I left him.
I sent him a copy of the Vanguard story. Three months later, I received a really beautiful and expensive-looking compact from Dannon, with a thank you note.
The good bacteria had worked for ME, too! This was the first time my writing had actually earned me more than compliments!
I am still a yogurt fan after all these years!
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