Yogurt Co-op: Culturing Community
Words by Craig Idlebrook / Images by Michael Piazza
It’s a chilly winter night, but there is a slightly steamy feel in the basement kitchen of the First Church UCC in Somerville, as five people mill around three large double boilers filled with heating milk. The steady hum of the gas flames blends into the easy chatter of the assembled group. A collection of empty Ball jars stands at the ready on the counter. Every now and then, the group stirs to do a thermometer reading before returning to their chat.
The small group is this week’s contingent from the Somerville Yogurt Making Co-op. Since 2010, the co-op weekly makes several dozen jars of yogurt for its members. Each coop member is responsible for three shifts of yogurt-making in a 24-week period in exchange for a weekly pickup of whole-milk or low-fat yogurt.
Finally someone calls out the temperature everyone’s waiting to hear, 180ºF. Benny Wheat, a young social worker who is the nominal ringleader of the five-person crew tonight, hops off the kitchen counter and lets out a little whoop in celebration. The burners are clicked off and Wheat goes to consult a small recipe book. The yogurt-making recipe has been rewritten several times as members have tinkered with the recipe, either by accident or by design.
“Different people make yogurt in different ways, so there’s an infinite amount of forgiveness,” Wheat says.
One of the few semi-constants in making yogurt is the temperature range needed to add the starter culture. The group now must wait again for the milk to cool down to about 125ºF. The kitchen crew rouses to make sure everything’s ready. Two party coolers are opened and a mason jar of hot water is placed in each to maintain the proper temperature for culturing the yogurt. Someone opens up the final jar of last week’s yogurt to use as the starter for this week’s batch. The yogurt is creamy and a soft shade of white; it tastes tangy and vibrant, surprising the tongue with a pleasant sharpness that stays just this side of pungent.
The milk cools and the culture is added. Part of the milk’s creaminess is that it has come straight from Crescent Ridge Dairy in Sharon, Massachusetts, and the soft whiteness of the milk seems to glow as it is poured into the waiting jars. Soon, there are two clusters of filled jars ready to become yogurt in the cooler, and the group shyly beams at the evidence of the night’s work.
The co-op was started by Sam Katz-Christy, a Somerville resident who started to make his own yogurt to cut down on the amount of plastic his family went through each month. After making a few batches with friends, Katz-Christy, an educational engineer who helps students build robots, began dreaming of creating a more efficient system for the process. He floated the idea of a co-op online and had all the members he needed to start it up within a week. Creating a network of people to come together to make healthy food fundamentally appeals to Katz-Christy’s spirit.
“That’s me. I like to organize things,” he says. “It’s really satisfying for me to create structures that work well.”
Informal food networks can come and go, but the Somerville co-op already has proven it has staying power. It’s survived a location shift from the Clarendon Hill Church in Somerville to the First Church basement, as well as a steady turnover of members as they move in and out of the Boston area. Aside from a onetime plague of disappearing Ball jars, a problem that was easily fixed with a Sharpie, the co-op has run smoothly. Folks pick up their yogurt and put in the required work; potlucks are held each season for group members to socialize and nominally discuss co-op business.
While Katz-Christy is clearly the guiding force behind the group, he has worked steadily to diffuse responsibility, creating rotating posts of co-op jobs; he wants to eventually become just another member rather than stay in the role of leader.
“My goal is to work my way out of it,” he says.
Bringing folks together to make food is just as important as making the food itself, says Katz-Christy. It’s hard to find venues in urban areas to process food cooperatively, and the abundance of supermarkets and restaurants lessens motivation for such ventures. But Katz-Christy believes a healthy community is an interdependent one that bakes and breaks bread together. Cooperative food-making is a way to fight the isolation that can come in the digital age, he says.
“Everyone has their own phone and Internet, but I think there is something that has been lost,” Katz-Christy says.
Members join for different reasons; many interviewed said they share Katz-Christy’s enthusiasm for community. Wheat lives in cooperative housing, and the idea of making food cooperatively seemed a natural extension. Another co-op member, Pamela Worth, joined mainly because she was looking for healthy yogurt at a low price.
“I save money on something I eat all the time, and I get to participate in an odd little community,” says Worth, a staff writer for the University of Massachusetts.
This isn’t Katz-Christy’s only co-op food venture. In 2011, he also started the League of Urban Canners, or LURC. The group harvests and processes fruit from forgotten backyard orchards in and around Somerville and Cambridge. Last year, the group picked and canned more than 4,000 pounds of fruit, including apples, apricots, peaches, mulberries, and quince.
Katz-Christy once was too afraid of botulism to consider canning. Then his teenage daughter, Molly, tried it with some excess strawberries bought from a farmers’ market. When the family survived the experience, he became a devotee of canning. The idea for LURC came to him one day after a long tomato-canning session, when he spotted a forgotten apple tree laden with fruit. Soon, he began to notice forgotten fruit trees everywhere in Somerville and Cambridge; they were vestiges of backyard orchards planted by past generations of Italian and Portuguese immigrants. As he began to map the trees, Katz-Christy grew amazed with the food the city was accidentally growing. He found a single tree that produced several hundred apricots in Harvard Square and 30 pounds of plums lying where they had fallen a block from Central Square.
“Once you see one cherry tree, you see them everywhere,” he says. “It’s like pattern recognition.”
That’s true, says Wheat, but she says Katz-Christy’s brain seems specially designed for the task. She’s amazed at his ability to produce near verbatim minutes of LURC meetings while taking minimal notes. His memory has an incredible, if selective, storage capacity, she says.
“I don’t know how he does it. His kids tease him because he can remember every detail about every harvest site, and he can’t remember his kids’ birthdays,” Wheat says.
Harvesters, canners, and homeowners divide up the processed jams, jellies, and spreads. Wayne Marshall, an ethnomusicologist and an avid gardener in Cambridge, signed up for LURC after a friend saw a flier for the group. Marshall’s family took part in LURC’s first full harvest season in 2012 and they he says they thoroughly enjoyed the harvest experience. His two little girls loved being underfoot and sampling the goods during the fruit-picking. At the end of the season, the family’ larder was filled with canned fruit.
“It was just such a shocking abundance all of the a sudden,” Marshall says. “One of the insights that Sam has is that we don’t need to plant that many more trees. There are tons of trees.”
For the upcoming season, LURC wants to give back to the city’s scattered fruit orchards by pruning them. To do this, they’ve enlisted the volunteer help of Jen and Ned, gardeners in Cambridge. Gardener Ned Wise met Katz-Christy as each marveled at the other’s customized bike trailer; Wise’s was decked out to handle gardening tools, while Katz-Christy’s was built for harvesting. Wise found Katz-Christy’s enthusiasm for LURC irresistible.
“He’s just an amazing bundle of energy,” Wise says.
He also loves the idea of helping urban fruit trees thrive. Most of them manage to produce bushels of fruit even though they have been either severely neglected or “pruned” to pieces.
“They’re an incredible testament to nature, really that they will just carry on regardless of however much abuse or neglect,” Wise says. “They’re awesome at finding what is there.”
LURC is branching out, as members who harvest in Somerville and Cambridge are beginning to find fruit trees in places like Burlington or Newton. There is also some talk of another yogurt-making co-op in the Cambridge area. Meanwhile, Katz-Christy is striving to make LURC as self-sustaining as the yogurt co-op, so that it will run on its own steam without him. He also has been toying mentally with the idea of cooperative bread-making, but so far the logistics to make such a venture work are eluding him. Wheat wouldn’t be at all surprised if he organizes another co-op sooner rather than later.
“Sam has said he’s forbidding himself from starting any new co-ops, but it’s a real struggle for him,” Wheat says.
Craig Idlebrook is a freelance reporter and editor who has written for more than 30 publications, including the Christian Science Monitor, Mother Earth News, and Chicken Soup for the Soul. He lives in Newton with his wife and daughter. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.