As families prepare to congregate around the Christ child, the carols, the churches, the Christmas trees, and the Santa Claus, there is one other C word that cements them all together: culture.
Families activate traditional recipes to honour, celebrate and top up what has been handed down through generations. But there is one simple recipe that has always intrigued me when making Lebanese yoghurt: culture.
The same word used to describe the same vital process is no coincidence. This age old recipe for sustaining yoghurt culture is more than metaphorical in teaching us about preserving human culture.
The English word culture derives from the Latin word cultura which means to cultivate or till. In sociology, it means to transmit through language and ritual from one generation to the next. In science, it means to grow micro organisms such as bacteria in a nutrient medium under controlled supervised conditions. In yoghurt, the starter culture contains a variety of lactic acids producing thermophillic bacteria.
My grandparents' generation handed down stories about Lebanese emigrants boarding ships a century ago carrying luggage with one hand and nursing a jar of yoghurt culture or rowbi with the other hand. They would seek favours from the shipping crew to refrigerate the jar so it could be preserved across the sea voyage.
The jar would be protected like a holy grail, containing the DNA of their ancestry, religiously handed down across generations. A century ago, the loss of that edible culture amounted to catastrophic severing of the ancestral culture because it was a living link to their unique family flavour. A child who had accidentally eaten the starter culture from the fridge was accused of culture-cide.
Like a chicken-egg quandary, debates abound about which came first – the culture or the yoghurt. What is not debated is that yoghurt cannot be made without some starter culture from a previous batch. Like human culture, yoghurt cannot be created from scratch – it needs a clone sample from a parent body.
Boiling the milk, whether full cream or skim, enables fermentation. Like human culture, it needs high heat to be borne out of passion and purity.
The boiled milk is then transferred to a heat proof bowl which will become its stable home environment for the duration of its batch life. The milk needs to cool to a tepid temperature. The traditional method for testing this is dipping your pinkie until you can count to ten comfortably – the only time that a human hand touches the mixture like a literal handing down anointment.
Human culture is best preserved if it is passed on in lukewarm moderation, not with hot-blooded cultural chauvinism, nor with cold-blooded cultural cringe, or cool indifference.
The refrigerated jar of culture is opened and the active living bacteria are ready to be embedded.
To prevent any culture shock, it is mixed with some of the tepid milk so it is more fluid and ready to permeate the new host body.