Way back, before I thought realistically about having children, I thought idealistically about having children. “I’ll just tie the kid to my back,” I said, “and carry on as always.” I saw no reason why children should alter my career, my sleep, my dinner plans.
Then I gave birth—to three children in fourteen months. I did strap a kid to my back, and another to my chest, but that still left one child roaming and wanting. In those first few years, my career faded, I slept in two-hour stretches, and I ate what I could make with one hand.
Though my carry-on-as-always vision failed to materialize, I refuse, even now, to abandon the ideal. Four years in South Africa confirmed that many mothers strap a baby (even babies) to their back and get on with work, socializing, cooking, gardening. Kids shouldn’t be that much work, I still try to convince myself, we needn’t bend every rule to please them, especially when it comes to meals.
Which brings me to yogurt tubes.
These wobbly plastic packets entered the marketplace ten years ago. General Mills hired an anthropologist to observe busy families at breakfast. The researcher reported that kids and parents tend to eat in the car or on their way out the door, with no time to sit down or use a spoon. The company concluded that families need more banana-like breakfast food: easy, portable, nutritious. Go-Gurt was born.
Until late last year I remained blissfully unaware of yogurt tubes, in part because the South African market had yet to be inundated, and in part because I buy only plain, unsweetened yogurt in large tubs. My kids like plain yogurt. In fact, they liked only plain yogurt until this:
“Mom, can I get a yogurt tube at the cafeteria today? It’s only a dollar.”
“Mom, everyone in my class has yogurt tubes in their lunch. Can’t you buy some, too?”
We have our share of mealtime battles, but yogurt-wise, we’d enjoyed a quiet innocence, a simplicity of pure, unadulterated yogurt. So why, why, did I pick that first box of yogurt tubes from the grocery store shelf? I read all the labels and compared all the brands. I chose tubes with no additives and low sugar, tubes produced by a cooperative dairy—but tubes nonetheless. I fell for it.
My kids fell for it too, not the taste so much as the packaging. Their tubes came in symbiotic flavors; the box advised squishing two in your mouth to create a spectacular taste “fusion.” But that’s not all, oh no. Our tubes enthralled with comics, graphic art, and the exciting option of freezing into yogurt pops (and then eating two at a time). The box disappeared in a day. The boys offered yogurt tubes to their friends and I joined the ranks of moms-who-buy-cool-food. Briefly.
As slops of orange-mango fusion calcified on the floor, as gooey plastic wraps collected under the couch and around the trash bin, I paused to compare the yogurt tube with its inspiration, the banana. There is, of course, no comparison. Bananas are bananas. I eat them because I want what’s inside: banana. Yogurt tubes are flaccid, messy, non-compostable, unyogurt-like entertainment, and after all these years, I still cling to the ideal that kids don’t need that much entertainment; we needn’t reinvent food to appease them. My kids ate plain yogurt with blackstrap molasses—in a bowl, with a spoon—but now “needed” yogurt emblazoned with cartoons and flavored with cotton candy. Time to turn this boat around.
In a corner of my mother’s basement, alongside fondue sets and punch bowls, there sits a bright blue plastic yogurt-maker. I remember this machine from my teenage years, perhaps when my mother faced an '80s version of my current yogurt-tube dilemma. I dusted off this retro device and brought it home, to my own kitchen and kids.
“We’re going to make our own yogurt?” they said.
We make our own cookies, our own soup, and occasionally our own bread. But yogurt, plain yogurt at least, seemed elemental, not derived from other ingredients. Alex, now a second-grader, stepped up to help, skeptical but intrigued by the blue yogurt-machine. He watched as the temperature rose in the pot and a film formed on the milk.
“We raise the temperature to kill off bacteria,” I told him.
“Yeah, the germs we don’t want in there.”
Once the temperature hit 180 degrees, we lifted the pot from the double-boiler and let it cool. At 115 degrees, I added a spoonful of store-bought plain yogurt.
“That’s the culture, Alex, the good bacteria.”
“What? You’re putting the germs back in?”
Alex learned several new words that day: sterilize, culture, ferment, Lactobacillus. He was, in other words, no longer intrigued but completely grossed out.
Did I go too far? Did I turn the boat around—or sink it forever?
The following day, I lifted five cups from their slots in the yogurt-maker. The boys approached warily, as one would approach something unfamiliar and alive. A tiny froth of bubbles covered the surface, but underneath our yogurt was smooth and creamy. Each boy held a spoon and with some coaxing, had a small lick. They agreed that our yogurt tasted just like the plain yogurt from the store; I thought it tasted much better.
Batches of homemade yogurt now occupy a regular shelf in the fridge: clear glass cups, plain white yogurt. No Disney characters, no comics, and no second-graders invited to sample our “culture.” That’s just fine; the boys have moved on. (Did you know Goldfish crackers come in green and purple?) Occasionally, they will ask to buy a yogurt tube at school, and that’s fine too. When lunch boxes returns at the end of the day, when I peel plastic wrappers from the inside lid and wash fluorescent-taste-fusion from the Tupperware, I know the boys have enjoyed a treat. And while I can’t put the yogurt back in the tube—literally or figuratively—I know, too, that we need only open the fridge for a little taste of paradise.