A Cultural History of Frozen Yogurt
Everything about current-day frozen yogurt is happy rainbows of fruit suspended over ladies jumping in blue skies—this is an actual poster you will see at Cool Whirled in Fremont—but there is another, darker side of fro-yo. No, I'm serious. I began eating it in college in the '90s, in a community of female athletes plagued by eating disorders. Let's just say we wanted to eat fictional food. Frozen yogurt was great fiction.
Back in college, I had a favorite place. It was in Redwood City, California, with a quantity-to-price ratio that was off the charts: I could get a foot-tall pile of peanut butter and cookies-and-cream frozen yogurt for $1.89. Best of all, as far as I was concerned, was that I was consuming no peanut butter, no cookies, and no cream. Hell, I didn't even know if there was actual yogurt in there; it sure didn't taste like it. This was about what I was not eating. To satisfy me, these spoonfuls didn't even have to approximate the taste of what they claimed to represent—I love TCBY's White Chocolate Mousse, for instance, though I loathe white chocolate and would not approach any mousse made of it. I never asked what ingredients went into my frozen mountains, because the whole point was that they were free zones. Fiction!
As suddenly as these liberation stations appeared, they disappeared again. First invented in the late 1970s, frozen yogurt became a darling of the fitness-crazed 1980s and early '90s—but it did not turn out to be a millennial treat. The New York Times reported that by 2005, only 65 million gallons of frozen yogurt were produced in the United States, compared to 117 million gallons in 1990.
The second wave began five years after the millennium, during George W. Bush's second term, in a store called Pinkberry in West Hollywood, California. Women in Uggs could be seen dashing from illegal parking spots to snag cups of yogurt that came in only two flavors: plain and green tea. This second wave was all about tartness. It had been inspired by a company in Korea. It was frozen yogurt that tasted like yogurt, frozen. You put toppings on it, toppings like mochi, and fresh fruit, and cereals. It was healthier. Or that was the pitch. That is always the pitch.
Behind the scenes, second-wave yogurt was like a mafia movie: The owner of Pinkberry reportedly appeared in one of the many knockoff stores in LA one day, waving a cigar and making veiled threats; the police got involved.
I tried this second-wave yogurt, and I despised the whole scene. It had none of my excesses or grand fictions. The portions were reasonable. The flavors were virtuous, even sophisticated, international. The eaters were righteous yoga types—but I saw them scooping on Fruity Pebbles and Cap'n Crunch! These stores carried signs bearing slogans like "Exciting New Flavor: Mango!" Mango is not an exciting new flavor.
An exciting new flavor is Red Velvet Cupcake Batter. Chocolate Coconut Truffle. Blackberry Lemon Mint Tart. Oatmeal Cookies. Pumpkin Pie. PB&J.
When I saw that Yogurtland was opening on Broadway this past spring, I knew what was coming, because I'd already had The Yogurtland Experience in Las Vegas.
Yogurtland is a bright, sparkling, libertarian world that returned a certain amount of fiction to the fro-yo universe. It is staffed by teenagers who hand out pink and green biodegradable spoons after you've had your way—your way—with an entire stainless-steel wall of self-serve yogurt machines and their ever-loving levers. The Yogurtland world is organized under the motto "You Rule." (This is the actual motto.) That's third-wave frozen yogurt: self-serve.
Yogurtland has been described to me as the McDonald's of frozen yogurt, but it is sneakier than fast food—it is your speed. There are two sizes of cups. They are both the size of tractors. After you inevitably overfill your already oversize cup, you take it to the front, toppings are scooped, they weigh it, they hand you a spoon, you pay. The price can range; I seem to pay around $4 (but I don't do toppings).
"You Rule" is Yogurtland Difference number one. The six Yogurtland Differences are listed on the company's website; Yogurtland didn't respond to my request for an interview. Yogurtland Difference number two is "Keep It Real." In little notes on the labels all over the store, Yogurtland reminds you that the foods referred to in these names are in fact the ingredients—that the names for these limply colored squirts are more than arbitrary signifiers. There is, for instance, real Oreo dust in your Yogurtland Cookies and Cream.
Naturally, I hate this truth-telling. I am at Yogurtland precisely not to eat Oreos. I also find it perplexing that anyone concerned with food realness would consume a milky, delicious glop of blackberries, lemons, mint, and tarts rather than the foods themselves. But this is what people are doing in droves. Yogurtland on Broadway was packed all summer. Its owners apparently believe winter won't slow it down much; they're reportedly opening Yogurtlands in Wallingford and Bellevue by year's end (a new U-District store is already open).
It's not just Yogurtland. In August, a local couple opened the independent Cool Whirled in Fremont (with the rainbow jumping-woman poster). They don't even weigh your yogurt there: You stuff as much as you possibly can into an 8-ounce, 12-ounce, or 16-ounce cup for a flat fee ($3.50/$4.75/$6). The toppings bar may as well be infinite, with every thinkable treat and curated surprises like fortune cookies, freshly baked pie bits, pumpkin sauce, and candy corn, thanks to constant attention by owners Cassandra Lindquist and Mark Hausman.
Second-wave yogurt—tart, they-serve-you—is still strong. Store to store, there's great variation: At Utopia in Uwajimaya, the ingredients are milk, flavored powder, and fatty Greek yogurt. (Small pomegranate berry, no toppings: $2.59.) The most charming representative of second wave in Seattle is Yoberry, inside Happy Teriyaki in the heart of downtown, owned and operated by the friendly Robi Seo. Her specialty is dragon fruit—protector against maladies ranging from colon cancer and diabetes to high blood pressure and cholesterol, asthma, and cough, signs in the store say—which she makes on-site by combining Nancy's nonfat yogurt, sugar, and dried dragon fruit. (Small dragon fruit, no toppings: $2.16.)
A company called YoCream in Portland is the largest Northwest frozen yogurt manufacturer. "We have no secrets," says marketing director Tony Tennant. I immediately like him; he is good at his job. It's a good time to be in the yogurt business—YoCream University, "an intensive two-day conference on starting and operating a frozen yogurt business," is booked solid a month in advance with 25 students each time, four times a year, Tony says. New yogurteers are turned out into the world every quarter.
YoCream is where Cool Whirled gets its yogurt, which is delivered, frozen, in half-gallon containers that look just like milk cartons. In this cryogenic state, the active yogurt cultures are suspended but still alive. The yogurt spends three days thawing in the fridge, bringing the cultures back up to speed, then gets poured into the hopper of the machines, which refreeze it.
Just how is a flavor like Cake Batter actually made?
"If you think about it, what is cake batter? It's milk, sugar, and flour," he says. "So essentially, the yogurt just has wheat, yogurt—the yogurt's made with milk—and we use corn syrup, not high-fructose but just the regular."
Thin Mint Cookie? Oreo dust, high-fructose corn syrup (and, presumably, some form of mint flavoring).
Reese's Peanut Butter? Milk, sugar, peanut butter, salt, molasses, stabilizers (vegetarian food starch), corn syrup, natural and artificial flavor.
You know: candy. I cannot help but point out to Tony that the sign at Cool Whirled says that Reese's Peanut Butter is fat-free—he says it certainly is not. Truth! YoCream is not hiding the truth, and I doubt Cool Whirled means to, either—there's just so much to label these days, from wheat to peanuts to fat to fructose (while vats of M&Ms and Cracker Jacks are standing by). The truth—or the preferred American form, truthiness—may be what has set frozen yogurt free. Whatever the case, I reserve the right to miss the days when frozen yogurt was made of denial.