Friday, April 15, 2011

Wee Daniel

In my previous post, I confessed to having a thing for/with yogurt: Fage and Nancy’s in particular. For the latter, early delivery man Huey Lewis, helped build a market by bringing the yogurt to the populated Bay Area and during the dark financial days of the 70s, a series of Grateful Dead benefits helped Nancy’s turn the tide to being a successful entity. Mr. Lewis, Jerry (so much bad music, for such a good yogurt) aside, the reason I even know about yogurt, let alone eat it every morning, can be traced almost to one person.

Isaac Karasu was Sephardic physician driven out of his homeland due to the Balkan war, these were the Balkan wars of 1912, the ones where the Greeks and Serbia took control of territories from a declining Ottoman Empire. Fleeing war, an uncertain Greek rule and regional pogroms, Karasu settled in Barcelona. Opening a medical practice, Karasu, who had changed his name to Carasso, noticed that many of his patients suffered from digestive issues. Looking back towards the old country, Carrasso imported cultures from Bulgaria and began producing yogurt first as a medicine.

By 1919 he had become the first industrial producer of yogurt in Spain, he named his company after his son, Danone is the Catalan diminutive for Daniel. Little Daniel grew up, studied in France and eventually took over the company’s French operation. Fleeing Nazis with family friend, Joseph Metzer, they settled in the US, opening the US operation of Dannon in the Bronx. Early product was as low as 648 half pint jars a day of plain yogurt, distributed to the very same Greek and Turkish communities, whose European warring had driven his father to Spain.

Two important innovations took place. One, the company began distributing their product in wax containers, allowing for greater distribution, since packaging was not dependent on returnable glass bottles. Second, Dannon began adding strawberry preserves to the bottom of these yogurt containers, a move that was insanely popular. Blueberry, raspberry and lemon were soon added. In 1951 Carrasso the younger returned to France to reclaim his confiscated factories and by 1960 had sold off his modestly successful American branch to the Beatrice Corporation.

Danone went on at the end of an improbable run: Yogurt became extremely popular in France, remember almost 50 lbs. per year per person, the popularity was enough to help propel the company’s expansion to 150 countries including Turkey, Greece and Israel. At the end of the decade, Metzger’s son, Juan, took over the helm of the company.
Back to the US, in the 70s Dannon, began airing a series of commercials featuring centenarians from Soviet Georgia. These commercials, using the exact opposite of models, became the template for yogurt as a health food because pretty people don’t grow old? The parent Danone, promotes itself as health company and yogurt to this day no matter how sugared, how refined, how many additives is still viewed as a health food. As readers know, I feel diets are either healthy or unhealthy, not individual foods. I am not opposed to the idea of probiotics, but despite Jamie Lee Curtis sincere belief they keep ladies of a certain age regular, there is so little proof, probiotics are really a matter of opinion, not fact. I like my yogurt, the taste, that whole milk creaminess, who needs to worry about health.


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