Annie Lambla recorded her impressive yogurt-making bike caravan through the Midwest on her blog YogurtPedaler.com, and now she talks to The Daily Meal about her passion for yogurt, the morning milking and the Midwest's tradition of farm-to-table. She also gives tips on planning a foodie bike trip like she took.
You’ve eaten and made yogurt in lots of different places, here and abroad. Can you give us a quick geographic primer on yogurt around the world?
When I was younger, I didn’t like yogurt. Then, I studied abroad in France, where people eat yogurt as a dessert, and I started to like it, especially what they called Greek yogurt. When I moved to Turkey, I learned about yogurt’s versatility and incredible taste. Then I began to love it.
Most theories agree yogurt originated accidentally in the Middle East or Mesopotamia and spread east from there into Asia, where its importance in the Indian subcontinent is pretty well known, and to the Balkans and Eastern Europe. It took a while to catch on in Europe and the United States -- it wasn’t until well into the 20th century that it became popular in France and Spain as a health food. However, the richest yogurt -- and richest yogurt cultures -- is still found in the Middle East and surrounding regions, where yogurt is an integral part of savory dishes, as well as enjoyed alone.
What was it like biking through the Midwest? What were people’s reactions like when they heard what you were undertaking?
Biking through the Midwest was a much greater challenge than I had anticipated. Sure, I chose the flat route (from Chicago, south through Illinois, then east through Indiana to central Ohio), but that’s also a windy one, and roads are usually either terribly paved (if at all) or full of trucks that pass at high speeds. The people I met, however, were fantastic. Some, understandably, expressed concern for my personal safety, just as much because I was a single woman traveling alone as because of the road conditions.
Most, however, were impressed, incredibly hospitable and generous. I hope some were inspired because I met frighteningly few fellow cyclists on the roads, even the beautiful ones! One of my great frustrations about the trip is how much more people focused on the biking part instead of the dairy parts, but since it was such a major part of my experience and challenges, I suppose I can’t blame them.
For a foodie who would like to take a similar but shorter bike trip, what route do you recommend? What should they avoid?
First, some practical hints; while most side roads in Illinois are paved, most in Indiana are not, so I was forced to ride on highways. Shoulders are either non-existent, inconsistent, or full of trash, and riding on them just makes cars pass you faster and with less regard for your safety and mental stability. In Ohio, I was able to ride for dozens of miles on paved, off-road trails, which were heavenly.
However, in terms of the food, I must admit Indiana was the most bountiful, especially surrounding Indianapolis. In short, I would recommend researching routes with regard to food destinations as well as road conditions.
Also, I planned my route with serious consideration for hills, since I was pulling a 100-lb. trailer, and if I did a similar trip, I would love to venture further south in Indiana and Ohio, for culinary as well as greater cycling opportunities. The first half of my trip, through the gridded flatlands, was almost completely through corn and soybean fields, which doesn’t leave much hope for farmstands with fresh fruit and veggies, or animal products of any kind.
In general when going on an extended bike trip, whether four days or two weeks, what are some tips for things to bring and what not to bring?
After one week on the road, I sent two boxes of stuff home that I didn’t need. Much of that was related to yogurt-making, which I did less of on the road than anticipated, but much of it was also personal gear. The most important things I kept were plenty of water and sunscreen, as well as a good supply of udder cream, which definitely saved me from a truly miserable and painful month on the road and which I had never appreciated as a commuting cyclist before this trip.
I had been warned to bring pepper spray to use in case dogs chased me -- which is common when cycling in rural areas, but luckily I didn’t have to use mine, although I was careful to always carry it in my jersey pocket. I made it the whole way with one pair of pants and one pair of shorts, and only two shirts in addition to my rotating two cycling outfits.
It would have been nice to have better maps, because I spent a lot of time on the phone talking to people who could look up alternate routes online when I reached a dead end, or a rail line, or a highway too busy to ride.
Of all the farms you visited, what surprised you most about farmers and the agricultural way of life in Illinois, Indiana and Ohio?
It’s impossible to generalize about the farmers and agricultural ways of life that I saw. Each farm was completely unique, but I suppose I was impressed most by the diversity of truths that farmers hold to. So much knowledge of why and how animals and farms survive is passed down through generations and communities, that what is taken for granted -- what should you feed cows while they’re being milked? When should calves be taken from their mothers? Which breeds of cow give the most or the most nutritious milk? -- is probably pretty debatable.
There are also so many niches in the dairy industry that each farm makes decisions to survive in their niche: Kilgus and Traderspoint both bottle on site; Traderspoint and Camille Farms are both organic; Kilgus, Camille, and Apple Family Farms are all in their third generations; and Apple and Payne Family Farms are both strictly herd share dairies.
I did seek out a consistency in the farms that I visited, not based on any organic, pastured, or family-farmed certification, but just that they are all dedicated to a personal, responsible, sustainable method of farming and community involvement.
All around the world, people are sounding the alarm about local, sustainable food. What about food were people you talked to interested in? How was it different from what people in your city, Chicago, are talking about?
I was impressed with how in touch people already were with their local farmers and producers. In Chicago, most consumers have no interest or knowledge of who makes their food, although that is changing. But in the villages, towns, and cities that I visited, I consistently met people who had a personal relationship with at least one farm that provided some of their food.
One of my goals of the trip had been to expose people to their local agricultural networks and resources, but I quickly found that to be naïve as they were much more aware and invested in those resources than I, as an outsider, could ever hope to be. At my grocery store in Chicago, on the other hand, people care more about eating “those sweet apples” or avoiding the expensive asparagus than they do about making sure their food isn’t traveling thousands of miles or wrapped in plastic or full of pesticides and preservatives.
What are two must-do food experiences to find along your route?
I definitely advise attending, and helping out if you can, a morning milking, which I did at Kilgus Farms, Traderspoint Creamery, Camille Farms, and Payne Family Farms. The proximity to the cows is enough to make you sympathetic to their well-being, and understanding the effort it takes to milk 50 cows every morning is humbling. Of course, tasting the fresh milk, warm and frothy, is incomparable to the overly-chilled milk we so often mindlessly pour over our breakfast cereal every morning.
Next, I suggest learning to process a chicken, which I also did at Traderspoint Creamery in Zionsville, Ind. I’m a firm believer in truly understanding where your food comes from; if I really want to enjoy a meal, I want to know the effort, food, and spirit that went into its production.
If neither of these prospects inspire you, head to your local county fair, like I did in Dayton, Ohio, and enjoy some corn on the cob, fried Oreos, and funnel cake -- just as authentic and local as the fresh milk and chickens in the Midwest -- and think about how much of what you’re eating actually comes from corn or soybeans!
I know I’m not doing a good job of limiting myself to two experiences, but of course, the most important to the Yogurt Pedaler must be to make your own yogurt -- extra points if you do it on a camp stove! The delicious taste of sweet, creamy, freshly made yogurt is incomparable, especially when you eat it next to the cows who made the milk.
Read about some of Annie Lambla's post-trip goals and reflections on YogurtPedaler.com.