If you'd braved the crowds of new Illini at Urbana's Market at the Square on Saturday, you might have had the good fortune to meet the Yogurt Pedaler, Annie Lambla. Annie's just beginning a bike tour around the Midwest, pulling a brightly colored bike trailer emblazoned with her website address, yogurtpedaler.com.
Along the way, Annie's making — and teaching people about — yogurt. Starting out from Chicago, Annie first visited Kilgus Farmstead (whose milk you may have seen at Common Ground Food Co-op) and then pedaled into Champaign-Urbana this weekend. She's en route to Gambier, Ohio, stopping at farms and farmers' markets along the way, and spreading the gospel of artisanal yogurt. And she was gracious enough to sit down and tell us about her tour.
Smile Politely: How did you get interested in making yogurt?
Annie Lambla: After graduating from Kenyon College in 2007 I moved to Turkey, where the yogurt is delicious and eaten in so many different ways. They have a drink called "ayran" made of yogurt and ice water and salt that I was determined to love even before I moved to Istanbul, and it's still one of my favorite ways to eat yogurt. Then I worked on a dairy farm in France for 3 months, where I learned to make cheese and yogurt — and the love affair began. I love how simple yogurt is, that it requires more patience than careful attention, and how magical and mysterious the process is — it's different for every person, every culture, and every environment.
SP: And what about bikes?
Annie: I've been riding bikes my whole life, but in 2009 I started volunteering at the Trips for Kids ReCyclery in Charlotte, N.C., and started learning mechanics. (Now I work at Blackstone Bikes in Chicago, another youth-focused non-profit bike shop.) I have always loved fixing things and making things with my hands, and fixing bikes is a perfect combination for my love of making beautiful and practical things. Plus, riding bikes always makes me feel great — it's the best way to relax in the afternoon or start off the day right.
SP: Where did you get the idea to bike around with the yogurt trailer?
Annie: At first, I had an idea to ride around the Midwest from farm to farm, learning about new farms on the road, and selling my yogurt along the way. My friend suggested building up a bike machine to run a refrigerator while I pedaled, but all of that just became too complicated and expensive. So I decided to change it into a project to inspire people to get excited about making things, which is what bikes and yogurt have done for me. On another note, I help manage a small grocery store in Chicago called Open Produce, and we try to sell a lot of regional products, so working there and learning about regional food production and distribution systems has also been helpful in finding contacts and truly understanding the yogurt process from start to finish — from the cows to grocery store shelves.
SP: How do you make the yogurt on the road?
Annie: I heat the milk over a campstove, and I incubate it over a tea candle, the jar wrapped in a tea towel and sitting on a ceramic plate balanced on three aluminum cans. Settling on this method took a long time, and lots of patience, experimentation, and ruined jars of sour milk.
SP: How has your tour been so far? Have you seen any interesting farms or markets?
Annie: I've only had one farm visit so far, to Kilgus Farms in Fairbury, Ill. It was fantastic — they market themselves as a real family farm, and that's what it is. They're in their third generation, and they just started bottling at the farm in 2009. Everyone was enthusiastic about my project, totally welcoming, and they all work so incredibly hard to keep the farm running and the animals healthy and happy.
I had a great experience at the Market at the Square in Urbana on Saturday — people were really curious and enthusiastic, about the yogurt-making, Kilgus Farms, and the bike part of the project. It really made all of the headwinds at the end of this week worth it, when I get to talk to people about what I'm doing, I remember that the Yogurt Pedaler is really a project about human connections, and the bikes and the yogurt are secondary to the communities and inspiring people I meet.
SP: How have the people you've met responded to the yogurt trailer?
Annie: Most people are a little confused at first, but curious. It's sometimes amazing how many people just walk by with curious looks on their faces without stopping to ask what I'm doing. I understand their hesitation, and one of the goals of the project is to pique their curiosity. Once people stop to talk, they've been really enthusiastic. So many people have said they have made yogurt before, but just as many say they have no idea how it's done, so I get to teach people as well as learn all kinds of methods used by other people for years.
SP: What brought you to Urbana? What have you been doing around town since you've been here?
Annie: I'm trying to hit a city with a good market or two and decent-sized community every weekend, and Champaign-Urbana was my first stop, on the way from Kilgus to Indianapolis. Urbana has been great! I've met fantastic people, and I had a great time Saturday at the Market at the Square and Common Ground Food Co-op. Then Saturday night my awesome hosts took me to the Bike Project, where the Mustache Ride was finishing up. What a great community of people, lots of fun all night, and I got to fix my bike right when I needed a stand and wrenches!
SP: What do you want your bike trip to accomplish? Do you have any future plans for your yogurt enterprise?
Annie: My goals are changing as I meet challenges and new ideas along the way — it's really, really hard to pedal such a heavy cart, into headwinds and even up the tiny "hills" of Illinois. Also, there really aren't many dairy farms in Illinois and Indiana, so it's a good thing I wasn't depending on that first dream of mine to completely make up my route and destinations as I rode. That being said, I am constantly changing my plans, and I have no idea whether the Yogurt Pedaler will lead to some future enterprise in yogurt, street food, bikes, or agriculture. My goals of the project are proactive, positive, and human; I want to inspire people to get excited about making things — whether that be yogurt, or a bike, or some crazy project they've dreamt up — and I want people to get curious and invested in their communities, street life, and their environment.
To read more about Annie's adventures, visit yogurtpedaler.com