My Lebanese grandmother smuggled a dab of yogurt culture out of her country during the 1918 pandemic. I’m making laban in tribute.
Sitti escaped Lebanon with rhouby smeared on her handkerchief, not sure what the future would hold. A century later, yogurt is helping me through another pandemic.
My grandmother carried our culture with her, so the story goes. She brought a dab of homemade yogurt dried on a handkerchief, traveling first from Lebanon to Marseilles in the year 1918, another time the world was reeling from a pandemic. Two years later, the culture stayed tucked in Sitti’s pocketbook when she and her two young daughters left France and headed to the United States, finally making a home in southwestern Pennsylvania. Through their entire journey, Sitti knew that laban was one essential that her daughters needed and she could not trust this new country to have yogurt as good as hers—or even yogurt of any kind.
Accompanying the tale of the yogurt transportation is the saga of the daughters’ quarantine in a hospital across Marseilles. During a transit strike, my grandmother trekked for two hours by foot, for the opportunity to stand on a chair and gaze at her girls through the tiny window of the ward housing children with the Spanish Flu. They lay side by side, my mother and her older sister. Their heads had been shaved, shearing my mother’s thick blond locks. By the time she left the hospital, her hair had grown back dark brown.
They left France visibly changed, but the culture was still stowed in Sitti’s velvet purse with the red stitched flower.
Now, as a bowl of milk sits wrapped in blankets on my dining room table, I meditate on my grandmother’s impulse to bring the yogurt culture with her, dried on her handkerchief.
Landing on Ellis Island, Sitti, my mother, and my aunt lined up with the other passengers, clutching identification, health cards, and passports. The inspectors did not notice the yellowed crud on a lilac-trimmed hankie; instead they checked for disease, illness, madness, and trachoma, an eye illness that inflicted the youngest daughter. But the little family got away with each other—and with the culture.
Now, as a bowl of milk sits wrapped in blankets on my dining room table, I meditate on my grandmother’s impulse to bring the yogurt culture with her, dried on her handkerchief. Could she have predicted that yogurt would not show up in markets in the U.S. until the 1950s?
My grandmother, a woman who was married at 13, who could not read nor write English, knew a few things: how to navigate the black market to sell her jewelry to get her tickets, how to survive in a foreign country for two years during a pandemic, how to divert her ill daughter away from the immigration inspectors, and how to guarantee your family would have the one essential food for all meals: laban, a delicious homemade yogurt.
We, her six grandchildren, have all cultivated starter—rhouby, it’s called—of our own and use the extraction from our last batch to create another.
Her original culture no longer contributes to our yogurt. We, her six grandchildren, have all cultivated starter—rhouby, it’s called—of our own and use the extraction from our last batch to create another. I, shamefully, had lost the practice. The Greek stuff in the store would have to do—at least it had the right texture.
In the middle of shelter-in-place, watching my supplies dwindle, and the expiration date on the milk coming too soon, I pulled out my heavy pan, poured in the milk, and heated it until bubbles formed along the edges, and the surface rose. I transferred the hot milk to a ceramic bowl where it cooled until I could insert my pinky for only 10 seconds, no more, no less. Then came time to mix in the rhouby. First, I put the culture in a small cup and diluted it with a little of the warm milk. Finally that mixture was stirred into all the bowl. I covered it: two blankets and a towel.
The awkward bundle sat overnight. The bacteria forming, the milk congealing, until in the morning, I awakened to my first bowl of homemade laban in 20 years. I found the perfect old salsa jar and filled it with tablespoons of my newly minted yogurt to start the next batch so I could continue my culture.
After the next bowl, the one after, and more, my connection to the old country, to Lebanon, strengthened. The cousins there and my family here were all in a new phase of contacting each other. Questions about their economic crisis and the dwindling food supply accompanied queries on how they were handling the pandemic. Lebanon, a country strained by refugees and unrest, wrestled with national initiatives and we couldn’t imagine a nationwide compliance with guidelines of any kind. That worried my family.
And suddenly it was August 4, at least 10 batches of laban later, Zoom meetings a routine, an acceptance of the new normal. But not for my cousins. That day, the city of Beirut exploded.
And suddenly it was August 4, at least 10 batches of laban later, Zoom meetings a routine, an acceptance of the new normal. But not for my cousins. That day, the city of Beirut exploded—the detonations were so powerful, windows shook on the island of Cyprus 264 kilometers away. Homes, offices, businesses, and warehouses collapsed, glass whirled through the streets, people were buried, injured, and missing. The port where the blasts originated also harbored a warehouse storing 85 percent of Lebanon’s grain supply, plunging the country into deeper despair.
For us, days of panic followed while we located our family. The connections we rekindled, like the yogurt I started making during shelter-in-place, heightened my affinity with our cultural home country. Its presence, always in the background, now took its position in the foreground. Everyone was safe, slightly injured and in the process of salvaging their apartments in the chic neighborhoods of Beirut.
My grandmother’s impulse to dip her handkerchief into the yogurt bowl was about authenticity, about culture, and about family. She could not have known that yogurt would not appear in American markets for another 30 years; all she knew was this culture was hers, was ours, and was something to pass on. And while we did not keep Sitti’s alive, the line of culture had blossomed and our dedication to family strengthened. This crisis made me diligent, not willing to settle for store yogurt, but something that spoke of culture, family, history, and my grandmother.