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July 07, 2004


Dear Vanessa --

I'm fresh back from a luscious nine days in St. Barthelemy, a beautiful and exclusive French Caribbean island much-beloved by celebrities. So expect lots of postings over the next few days on the topics that have been preoccupying my mind recently: the French, food, leisure, and toplessness. And then toplessness a couple more times too.

To be a honest, The Wife and I were only able to afford our Voyage Into Decadence thanks to a few factors: some good friends who let us rent their lovely, right-on-the-beach villa at a discount; offseason prices generally; and our own frugality with food. Given that you could quickly double the US's foreign debt by eating one meal a day at a St. Barth's restaurant, we chose to prepare nearly all our meals for ourselves instead.

As you'd imagine, what this really means is that The Wife did all the actual preparing. Some of the standout dishes she served up: plantains browned in butter and sprinkled with rum, sugar, and salt; and pork with pineapple, onions, green peppers, soy sauce, and (yes!) rum again. My efforts to be an equal partner consisted of hanging around and pitching in with such essentials as carrying the grocery basket, taking husbandly charge of garbage management, and (my one culinary achievement) mixing up the salad dressing. Next year: Michael Blowhard learns how to prepare guacamole.

Hey, how do you and The Hubster divvy up food chores?

All of which leads me to today's stop-the-presses blogtopic: yogurt. St. Barth is very French -- much more French, it seemed to us, than Caribbean. What with the St. Tropez glitz, the St. Tropez dough, and the island's many hills and vistas, St. Barth is a lot more like a toy version of Monaco than it is like a Frenchified version of Jamaica. Most of the people on the island are French; the nonchalance, stylishness, and toplessness are French; most of the food-preparation is French; much of the food in the markets is imported from France.

Including the yogurts. What a pleasant surprise to take home a four-pack of French mini-yogurts, crack 'em open, and discover that they taste like ... yogurt. Tangy and sour, and unashamedly creamy.

Are you much of a yogurt fan? I've been ever since I first ran across it. As far as I can tell, yogurt was invented by the Bulgar people of Central Asia, and was first popularized in this country as an exotic health food. (There were stories going around about people in the Caucasus eating little but yogurt and living until the age of 120, etc.) The food was supposed to have almost magical properties; in the '70s, I was one of credulous many who bought little yogurt-making machines -- heaters and cups, basically, which were good for a couple of tries before winding up in the garbage can.

It's nice these days that yogurt in America has become so convenient, and so easily-found. What ain't so nice that it's become so un-yogurtlike. 99% of the yogurt to be found in the typical grocery these days strikes this yogurt-lover as goes-down-easy, sweet-and-insipid fake food. Jello with added milk by-products, basically, and yet another example of America's tendency to turn all foods into grown-up versions of pasteurized baby food.

But French yogurt! Even the conventionally packaged stuff I bought in St. Barth delivers undisguised yogurt pleasure: the sour-tangy kick that accompanies the sexily-rich creaminess; the whipped-up exquisite quality that goes hand-in-hand with a hint of the barnyard. (Why pretend that yogurt isn't about the fermentation that happens when you add bacteria and yeast to milk? Say it loud and say it proud: Lactobacillus!) That's a true French combo, by the way: the refined and the earthy not at war but enhancing each other's better characteristics.

So what can a yogurt-lover do for real yogurt-pleasure in this country? Me, I satisfy the craving by searching out yogurt made from goat's milk or from sheep's milk. This one here is really good. This Greek-style yogurt here is pretty good too; it gets me by when I can't find the other one. How about flavored yogurt? Harumph: if you really don't like yogurt, then why not just eat Jello-brand pudding instead? Yogurt's to be enjoyed plain or, if need be, with a little honey or maple syrup.

Question: do Americans really prefer corporate pabulum or do they just not know better? As Janet Fletcher wrote here for the San Francisco Chronicle:

Sometime around 1970, yogurt took a turn for the worse. For 900 years at least, it had been a wholesome, unadulterated food -- fresh milk converted to curds by natural bacteria. Then America discovered it. In short order, supermarket dairy cases filled with yogurt that Old World cooks would not have recognized: a sweet, stiff product loaded with sugar, fruit, gums, stabilizers and sometimes artificial flavors.

In her good article, Fletcher claims that real yogurt is making a comeback in this country. (She also recommends some real yogurts that I'm eager to try.) I'm hoping she's right.



UPDATE: Thanks to Ann, who pointed out this firstrate Corby Kummer article about yogurt here.

posted by Michael at July 7, 2004


It's not yogurt, but have you tried the ice creams and sorbets* at the Laboratorio del Gelato? The best I've had in America.

il Laboratorio del Gelato
95 Orchard St.
(between Broome & Delancey Sts)
New York, NY 10002

(212) 343-9922.

* The Apple / Sherlock dictionary says that sherbert and sorbet are the same thing, and that they both contain milk. I would've thought sorbet had no milk.

Posted by: john massengale on July 7, 2004 2:19 PM

Yoghurt sweet? Now, that is seriously wrong. That boggles the mind. People who prefer their yoghurt sweet are probably capable of any barbarism imaginable.

The decline of civilization starts with such small details.

Posted by: ijsbrand on July 7, 2004 5:08 PM

Allow me to sing a paean to the joys of declining civilization: pineapple pizza*, jalapeno-cream-cheese on poppy-seed bagels, barbecued beef, milk chocolate, and yes, sweet yogurt**, preferably sweet frozen yogurt.

If you prefer the term "fusion cuisine", I shall try to hide my smirk. It might interfere with chewing.


* Actually pepperoni, pineapple, onion, jalapeno, and extra cheese pizza by preference.

** Webster's Collegiate slightly prefers this spelling.

Posted by: Doug Sundseth on July 7, 2004 5:23 PM

"How about flavored yogurt? Harumph: if you really don't like yogurt, then why not just eat Jello-brand pudding instead?"

That's me... yogurt must be well sweetened to be endured. Yogurt is something I feel I "should" eat to mitigate the loss of intestinal flora whenever I need to take antibiotics. I can't go near the major supermarket brands. I tolerate Brown Cow or Total (both recommended in the Janet Fletcher article).

Now pudding... that's a whole 'nother story.

Posted by: Val Ann C on July 7, 2004 5:24 PM

Intercontinental exchange above made me to ask myself (but any outside help is appreciated) a question: when much is too much? In other words, why chocolate milk is good and chocolate "salo" is unthinkably disgusting?

And what factors in individual perception of "too much"? Chocolate (yeah, I am particular to that product) pretzels is impossible combination to me, but I personally saw a live and quite well fed person actively enjoying them. And don't get me started on "International House Of Pancakes" fillers menu.

At the same time there are food combinations that seems to get same positive reaction from people with different taste buds, their geographical/socio-economic/gender/age/&c background as varied as could be. Picture milk-and-cookies, bread-and-butter, meat-and-potatoes sort of things.

Given universal importance of the question, I'd assume there must be serious studies out there.

Posted by: Tatyana on July 7, 2004 5:45 PM

Oh I can certainly vouch for the authentic goodness of the Trader Joe's yogurt mentioned in the linked article. Mountain High also is good, especially the "full fat" varieties. Both list all the cultures they contain, and are most certainly still active!

My mom also had one of those home yogurt kits in the 70's, but after the batch or 2 that got made it didn't end up in the trash, but rather collected dust for 20 years or so.

Posted by: David Mercer on July 7, 2004 8:03 PM

Hey Michael, did you get a bead on what all those rich Frogs (how crude of me) do to get the moolah to be able to afford those hyper-expensive St. Barts luxuries (like eating out)?

Posted by: ricpic on July 7, 2004 9:00 PM

Corby Kummer has an excellent article about yogurt in a recent Atlantic Monthly:

Posted by: Ann on July 8, 2004 10:01 AM

Tatyana, home dipped pretzels in semi sweet or dark chocolate are divine--it's the salt/sweet thing. Like eating spicy gum drops and Spanish peanuts together. However, the ones you buy prepackaged are a very sad imitation.

Posted by: Deb on July 8, 2004 4:07 PM

How about you try and make your yogurt at home? Boil about half a gallon of milk (don't let it bubble over) and add about a spoonful of yogurt(plain, store bought)and let it set in a cool, dark corner. Preferably your oven, when its not being used. You can eat it whenever once its set.

Posted by: Neha on July 9, 2004 9:26 AM

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