My route covered parts of Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio in August and September 2010.
I wrote regular updates about my days on the road, as well as reports about the farms I visited. Relive my adventure – read on!
Culture Caravan beta version
I inaugurated my Culture Caravan on May Day, heading to the VERS10N Festival’s Chicago Art Parade. It took a lot longer than expected to get the bike and trailer all the way to the West Loop. I was really lucky the wind was at my back, but I was still completely exhausted by the time we got to the intersection of Green and Wayman, where the Chicago May Day Art Parade had finished…over two hours before. I gave out some yogurt to a little crowd standing around anyway, though, and it was a great first test run!
Erin and Nick showed up for support and we pedaled up Milwaukee to the Polish Triangle, where I plan to hang out for a bit tomorrow on my way back down to Hyde Park.
Concept sketches 1.0
I get a lot of questions about what makes Greek yogurt so special. As far as I know, straining is the biggest difference. (Remember how it says “Greek strained yogurt” on the container?)
How do you strain yogurt, you may ask, and why go to all the trouble? Because strained yogurt is thicker, creamier, and less acidic. Being familiar with straining yogurt also means you have incredible control over the texture of your yogurt. Also, you have lots of whey to play with.
Whey is the liquid that drains out of the yogurt when you strain it. It’s also the slightly greenish liquid that separates from yogurt you buy at the grocery store. It’s pretty acidic, and it has a lot of lactose in it, but it’s also full of great nutrients, so don’t throw it out! At the farm in France, we gave whey to the pigs – because of its high acidity, it was hard to get rid of it any other sustainable way, and pork from pigs fed with whey have a delicious, distinctive taste. At home, keep the whey in your fridge until the next time you cook chickpeas, rice, or other dried beans, and soak them in the whey overnight instead of using water so they absorb all of the nutritious goodness. Some people even drink whey straight, but I have yet to be so bold.
How do you strain yogurt? Get a sieve, and a bowl that fits nicely under the sieve with a decent amount of space under the bottom of the sieve, and some cheesecloth. Place a few layers of cheesecloth in the sieve, pour the yogurt in, and wait. There’s no real science here – just let it sit (in the fridge, or at least keep an eye on it so it doesn’t get warm and spoiled) until the yogurt is the texture you want.
The batch of yogurt pictured here (made from milk from Keith Parrish’s Farm – South Pork Ranch, LLC in Chatsworth, Illinois, which had a strong, grassy smell that Dena liked much more than I did) I had an especially hard time getting firm to my liking, so I popped the whole thing in the strainer, just for about 45 minutes until it was the thick consistency I like over my morning granola and fruit. You can keep going, and it turns into a spreadable yogurt cheese, what they call labne in Turkey. It’s what I spread on these delicious crostini I made for a recent dinner party, and what I also like to do occasionally as a change from yogurt over granola every morning – spread yogurt on some toast with honey or jam.
big decision time
I’ve been off the radar for a little while – contemplating big questions about this Yogurt Pedaler and its goals and real feasibility. Frankly, it turns out my original goals for the project – giving yogurt away that I’d made from local milk turned into yogurt on my bike – is forbidden by a number of state and local laws and regulations regarding dairy processing, milk handling, street vending, and food preparation. I did plenty of research (thanks are due especially to Elise Becchetti, lawyer extraordinaire here in Chicago) and contemplated what risks I am willing to take.
I have also spent a lot of energy figuring out what the goals of the Yogurt Pedaler really are. Is it something I should do, whatever the costs, and just trust in the goodness of the people I meet along the way to get me from one place to the next? Is this the inkling of a business venture I should pursue realistically, taking my time and making all the effort necessary to get licensed and really ready? Or does the realization of this project lie somewhere in the middle?
I’ve settled on the latter. The goals of this project are about the yogurt and the bike, certainly, but above all they’re about inspiring people to make their own food and bringing life to public streets and spaces. And those goals don’t require illegally distributing handmade yogurt.
So, keeping my goals and foundations intact, I’m merely re-framing the Yogurt Pedaler, “marketing” it as an educational mission. I’ll be teaching people to make yogurt, distributing literature and giving as many demonstrations to as many people as possible. If it’s something I love and it turns into a larger business venture, the Yogurt Pedaler could evolve into a real, licensed food cart in the future. Or, perhaps this will lead to my discovery of a method of teaching that I truly love. I’m also open to the possibility that the Yogurt Pedaler is an ephemeral experience, and it may retire with the end of the summer.
With your help, dear followers and culture caravaners, I’ll find my way through the Midwest this summer, and the rest will follow when the time comes.
I’ve been accepted to start a Kickstarter page – this is my first push of marketing and fundraising, so you should go to my page (coming soon!) and contribute to the Yogurt Pedaler. I’ve got a month to raise $1800. Please help me out; every dollar counts!
In preparation, I’ve put together a draft budget for the project. I’ve never done this before for a project that I was actually going to implement, so it’s hard to figure out exactly how much money I’ll need for a project that no one has ever done before. In any case, here’s what I’ve sketched out, in case you’re interested to know where that $1800 figure came from. Of course, I’m sure it will change when I’m on the road and figure out what I really need, and there are two major expenses – the reconstruction of my bike trailer into the Yogurt Pedaler cart, and finding a good incubation/heating method for making the yogurt on the road.
My next steps are to develop contacts with farms and communities in Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio, and try to establish a route. I’m also in search of organizations focused on community development or sustainable agriculture in the region that may be able to help me establish my network and/or sponsor the Yogurt Pedaler. Any suggestions are most welcome!
I’ve launched fundraising efforts with a Kickstarter page. Please check it out and consider pledging to the Yogurt Pedaler.
Just as importantly, however, pass on the Kickstarter link to your friends, family, and colleagues. Word of mouth is the best publicity! Feel free to email me with any questions at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks!
When I make yogurt at home, I wrap it in a couple of dish towels and set it right above the pilot light overnight. This keeps it at about 115 degrees, which is a little cool but close to perfect for yogurt incubation.
When I’m on my bike, it won’t be so simple. So, I’m in an experimental stage of yogurt incubation tests. My uncle is being a big help, encouraging all sorts of set-ups with black plastic bags and using water heated by the sun, and I’m excited by one of the ideas he just recently came up with.
This weekend’s experiment was incredibly simple, and surprisingly successful, although I had to modify it a bit when the cloud cover started rolling in later in the afternoon…a natural shift in the weather that I’m going to have to be able to adapt to on the road, too.
I was housesitting in Oak Park, in a house with a backyard that got full sun all afternoon, so I took advantage of the nasty summer heat (sympathies to the East coast, where it was worse) and just set my jar on the rocks.
I think it would have been better to wrap it in a black plastic bag. The jar wasn’t actually that hot to the touch (I left my thermometer in Hyde Park), so I think the glass and white yogurt actually reflected the heat I wanted insulated. I had to leave once the clouds came, so I heated up a big pot of water, started preheating the oven, turned off all of the burners, and shut the yogurt in the oven in hot water, hoping their new oven kept its heat better than mine.
It did! The yogurt came out runnier and grainer than usual (the latter I am pretty sure is because of this kind of milk, I’m not a big fan, even though it is raw), but it did sour into yogurt, so I’m encouraged by future plans of solar ovens in various forms. Stay tuned!
keep the momentum!
Thanks so much to all of you who helped me reach my goal of $2000 so quickly!
Now for the hard part; that budget didn’t include outfitting my bike properly. So, in order to make the Yogurt Pedaler sustainable, durable, and effective, spread the word, and help me transform this:
into a properly constructed bike trailer that I can depend on, that will carry my yogurt making supplies, teaching materials, and tent and personal gear reliably,
…so I won’t return to Chicago lugging a cart held together with duct tape, zip ties, and bits of old bike tubes.
Pledge here. (Click the green “back this project” button to the right of my video.)
So please help me keep the pledges coming ($2000 is not Kickstarter’s limit), keep getting the word out, and help me get safely on the road in August!
I’m no biologist. But I’ve learned a lot in the last few days about microbiology, bacteria, fermentation, proteins….and I’m putting it together in a sort of “lesson” on the science of making yogurt. There are still a few parts that totally confuse me, and most of it baffles me healthily, but for now, I’ll give you a few teaser photos that I think are AWESOME.
incubation experiments.2 & 3
It’s a little over 2 weeks before departure…and I have yet to successfully make yogurt outside of my kitchen. I’m getting closer, but also more desperate. I have a fourth experiment (no yogurt, just a temperature maintenance test) on my kitchen counter now – I’ll report back tomorrow on its success. (It’s in a 30-year-old thermos rescued from the floor of Blackstone Bikes…so I have my doubts, but we’ll see.)
Experiment number 2 was a slight upgrade from sun experiment 1, which almost worked. For this one, I simply stuck my yogurt jar in a black garbage bag, hoping to capture some of the sun’s heat and store it a little longer and hotter. I sat it on the roof of Experimental Station all day long, on a consistently hot day.
At the end of the day…I had my first MISERABLE complete yogurt-making failure I can remember. I was holding a hot jar of cream. It smelled sweet and creamy and sour all at the same time. I tossed it right down the drain.
Experiment number 3 was much more involved. I did some research on some awesome websites about solar ovens (I really want to make one out of an umbrella, but I don’t need to grill my yogurt, so it didn’t seem appropriate), and made one of my own.
I was excited, but also a little skeptical. Espeically of the hinge, which was screwed weakly into styrofoam. My worries turned out to be justified, because the top broke off the in wind on the way to Experimental Station. No reflectors for me! (I had intended to use the foil-covered roof as a reflector in the middle of the day and then close it as the sun sunk lower and cooler during the afternoon.)
In any case, this experiment definitely made yogurt, just really, really watery yogurt. I had my thermometer stuck in the top, in the shade, for the whole day, and checked it periodically. The temperature was fluctuating a LOT, so that likely had something to do with the mediocre results.
I have dreams of a fancy solar oven hooked up to solar panels and a heat storage center, with little pipes that run hot water from the super-thermos to the yogurt, like a little solar powered yogurt radiator.
Corrigan cleaned behind the counter at the bike shop the other day, and I snagged a big old thermos he was going to throw out. Instead of going through the whole yogurt making process, I filled it with hot water from the faucet, closed it up, and wrapped the whole thing in an insulation blanket I got from American Science & Surplus.
The temperature at 8:45, when I left for work, was 110°F, and when I returned home 11 hours later, at 7:45, it was at 95°F – a loss of only 15°F! I’m hopeful – today I’m going to heat some water on the stove to about 125°F and try a yogurt incubation experiment for the rest of the day. (Remember – the ideal yogurt-making temperature is 110°F.)
Today I did a two-fer. Steven’s suggestion of a tea light imitating the pilot light I use in my kitchen was simple, and I tried the thermos jug again, with heated water and yogurt inside.
The results: minutes after removing their UFO wrapping foils, were diverse. The thermos yogurt is definitely yogurt – smells like it, and it’s got the texture of a very, very thin yogurt. We’ll see if it firms up enough in the fridge.
Thanks to all of you who have helped sponsor these yogurt-making adventures – the failures as well as the successes! My Kickstarter fundraising goal was met, exceeded grandly, and my time is up. Keep an eye out for future updates, and thanks again!
I woke up again this morning to two more yogurt failures. This is wearing on me, but at least I have two outliers to work with on the tea light method.
Last time it was burnt, so I added some distance this time. And I did it overnight, woke up after 4 hours and it was still lit, so I switched the candle and when I woke up 4 hours later the tea light was out…I’m not sure how long it had been out, but the jar was just sort of hot, so I don’t think it had blown out too recently. The yogurt is yogurt, but really runny. So I’m trying again tonight, with the tea light a little closer to the jar (on a can of cat food). Report forthcoming…
The other method I tried was one that I’ve heard works reliably for a few other people – fill some jars with boiling water and put them in a cooler with your yogurt and cultures…I did just that, just placing the tops on the jars and not closing them so my towel wouldn’t get soaked, and I woke up this morning to warm milk. What did I do wrong, those of you who use this method regularly?
I should say – the milk was possibly a little too warm when I added the cultures, so perhaps I killed some of the cultures by scalding them…I’m not sure whether or not I hope that’s the case, but it will teach me to be patient, yet again.
i have a logo!
Thanks to the fantastic Alejandra Ponce de Leon and my fumbling around in Adobe Illustrator, I have a logo! Watch for it to appear on my lessons, cards, stickers (!! inshallah), and snazzy apron.
Another failure this morning…tea light burning, again. I never expected tea lights to be SO HOT!
Perhaps I should clarify – I incubate it wrapped in the silver heat blanket you see behind the jar, but with the bottom exposed so the heat gets to the yogurt (seeincubation experiment 5). Looks like tonight I’ll try again, and this time I’ll do two more experiments – another like yesterday, and I think I’m going to go back to my dish towel method of before, to see how the heat distributes when it’s enveloped in cloth instead of metal.
HOWEVER, there is some not-bad news to report on the yogurt-making front! Yesterday’s mediocre, watery yogurt is now straining, and I am hopeful! Turns out the yogurt in the bottom of the jar was much creamier and more delicious in texture than the top part. 🙂 So it’s over a sieve with some good ol’ cheesecloth (no invisible science that challenges and frustrates me there), and hopefully in under an hour I’ll have some nice thick “Greek” yogurt.
A note on cultures: This yogurt is not as sweet and delicious as I prefer in my favorite yogurt. It actually, no surprise here, tastes like the Fage yogurt that used as cultures, which I find a little bland-tasting for my liking. — Proof of what I’ve said that the yogurt you use as culture really does influence your final product!
An update to yesterday’s heat caveat: Last night I actually used my thermometer to measure the temperature of the milk when I added the cultures. It’s supposed to be at 120°F – which is surprisingly hot! Before I had a thermometer, I always decided when to add my cultures by waiting until the milk was hot enough for me to stick my finger in it for a couple of seconds…which turns out to be closer to the “ideal” incubation temperature of 105-110°F. I’m curious how important that temperature is now, and whether it really depends on local environmental conditions just as much (or more?) than the bacterial cultures contained in your yogurt jar.
I have two runny jars of yogurt in my fridge. One is actually being strained right now…and has the right texture of yogurt, but isn’t sour at all. I’m perplexed by this – I used the same milk (Grass Point Farms whole milk) and cultures (Fage Total) as last time, and all three batches taste and smell completely different. Time for a little research…
And so I find, in Fundamental Food Microbiology by Bibek Ray (2004), that this creaminess and sweetness is likely due to this batch of yogurt having a higher ratio of Streptococcus thermophilus to Lactobacillus bulgaricus, resulting from fermentation (incubation) happening at a lower temperature:
“If the temperature is raised above 110°F, the Lactobacillus sp. dominates, causing more acid and less flavor production; at temperatures below 110°F, growth of Streptococcus sp. is favored, forming a product containing less acid and more flavor.”
These experiments were a further development of my tea light method. I decided to experiment with whether the material of my yogurt jar made a difference in the solidification of the yogurt – I’m thinking a lot about heat dissipation these days, through ceramic vs. glass. So, bringing the experiment another step toward what it will be like on the road, I also set the containers outside in the cooler. (The air was cooler, so when I woke up in the morning I closed the lid a little bit, propping it open with my tent poles. I think I’ll do this from the beginning from now on.)
So, the method works well enough. I still want my yogurt firmer throughout, however, instead of just thick at the bottom and all watery at the top, and I suspect this may contribute to the slightly bland and watery taste of the final yogurt (in addition to my not-favorite Fage cultures being somewhat bland, in my opinion), so tonight I’m going to try a couple more tea light methods on a ceramic tile to encourage more regular and even heat dissipation, like a pilot light, which (I discovered in lifting up the top of my stove) is certainly hotter than a tea light but whose heat is deflected from the stovetop by a metal tab and a heavy enameled metal stovetop.
Test runs are always good ideas.
It felt oh so good to get my signs clipped onto my cart, and strap my newly fabricated table on top, despite their inescapable flimsiness.
But then I packed everything up and got on the road, and I realized a few very important missing elements in the Yogurt Pedaler’s getup:
1. The cooler didn’t fit in the cart. This is oh so obviously something I should have confirmed before now, but I didn’t. Good thing I wasn’t depending on a cooler as enormous as this one. One item added to the Menard’s shopping list.
2. The tarp I salvaged from the dumpster to make my rain tarp had been tossed for a reason – it was full of holes. Back to square one. At least I had most of a shower curtain lying around at Open Produce. Thanks, Steven.
3. I broke my front basket while strapping it onto the handlebars. So much for my awesome old leather Schwinn handlebar bag.
4. My squeaky new umbrella is too short to stand under, so I’ll either have to find a sturdy, light extension method, or go umbrella-less and hope people eat my yogurt quickly.
5. My heels hit the panniers at every pedal stroke. Luckily there’s a solution for this involving a PVC pipe strapped to my rear rack, already perfected by Steven and Katherine on previous trips.
I’m getting down to the wire. At least the last two runny batches of yogurt were …yogurt…
This time, I decided to try my new heat dissipation method, using my new terracotta flowerpot plate, and testing my new yogurt jar (the exact replacement of the one I used in the past, which was kindly shattered by Mushkilla the cat).
The result: two more jars of burnt yogurt milk.
I felt the terracotta plate with my hand, and it was actually just as hot as the pilot light surface on my stove. Granted, that means it was so hot I couldn’t keep my hand there, so it’s a pretty imprecise comparison. What it does mean is that I think I will make two changes…with a third in the wings. First, I’m going to stop using my heat blanket and go back to dish towels. Second, the tea light is going back on the ground, because there is plenty of heat coming out of that candle without me propping it up closer to my yogurt. The third adjustment waiting in the wings will be the adjustment of the cooler top – I think it’s not really necessary to close it as much as I did, although a little bit of cover probably isn’t a bad idea. The problem with this method on the road is that the temperatures and atmospheric conditions will probably vary greatly, so I’ll have to keep a better eye on ambient air temperatures than I have been. That’s what my thermometer is for, right?
The backstory: I was lucky to have an internship at the Exploratorium Museum of Science, Art, and Human Perception in San Francisco during the summer of 2005. (Particularly, working with Peter Richards on the Invisible Dynamics project.) It was amazing. The museum is one of the most incredible institutions I have known, encouraging exploration and experimentation and creativity and curiosity like nowhere else.
And I had a realization: the Yogurt Pedaler is a perfect example of the Exploratorium’s ideas in practice: it’s a project about science, about art, and about exploring the way people perceive their environments. Creating and experimenting and asking questions and discovering answers are all a necessary part of the process, which is (and this is where my research from 2005 is manifested) not the artistic, scientific, or any one particular process working independently, but it’s all of them at work together.
61st Street Farmers Market
My first demonstration is happening tomorrow! (For better or for worse – those of you who have been following my incubation experiments will understand my anxiety…)
Come see me at the 61st Street Farmers Market (at E 61st St and S Dorchester, in Woodlawn, just south of the Midway Plaisance, Chicago). I’ll be hanging out at the Market School from 10 am – 1 pm, teaching people to make yogurt and talking about the project. Come by and say hi, and I hope to see you there!
p.s. I’ll have flashy new business cards, some cool printed lessons you can take home, and some awesome hand-screenprinted stickers designed by Lina Moe and printed by Stefan Gunn for you to check out. So in case a street full of delicious farm-fresh produce and homemade yogurt weren’t enough to tempt you, now you definitely have no excuse to sleep the morning away.
learn about the magic of yogurt-making
Check out new teaching materials on the “Yogurt? How?” page!