Few foods are as revered around the world as yoghurt. From the Ancient Greeks, to biblical super-star Abraham, to the Mughal Emperors of India, it seems that every great dynasty has at some point been shaped by the sharp dairy product. Yoghurt finds its way into traditional classics like tzatziki, raita and Skyr and has been touted as everything from a miracle cure for diarrhoea to the key to everlasting youth. People can’t get enough of it.
Traditionally, yoghurt making has been more like magic than cookery. Ancient chefs, whether by accident or design, stumbled across a certain bacteria that, when introduced to heated milk, produces a lactic acid that gives yoghurt its unique texture and tart taste. The whole process was rarely exact and often yielded mixed results. Yet, through years of refinement and perfection, cooks soon got a handle on a reliable recipe and modern yoghurt was born.
Today, for the vast number of businesses who earn their money from dairy, yoghurt is a far more exact science. In China, for instance, brands are required to produce yoghurt with a specific number of colony forming units of bacteria (CFUs), or the product is deemed unfit for sale. There is little room for messing about with yoghurt.
That has not stopped one determined junior doctor and her vagina. Intrigued by the possibility of using bacteria found within the human body to recreate the lactic acid-effect seen in conventional yoghurt making, PhD student Cecilia Westbrook came up with a radical plan.
Though on the surface, vagina yoghurt may seem like a horrible idea, there is a method behind the madness. As Westbrook’s friend and event documentarian Janet Jay wrote on ‘Motherboard’, “Every vagina is home to hundreds of different types of bacteria and organisms… The dominant bacteria is called lactobacillus, which also happens to be what people sometimes use to culture milk, cheese, and yogurt”.
In addition to its transformational qualities, lactobacillus is also essential in the promotion of other healthy gut bacteria. This meant that, in theory, vagina yoghurt has the potential to be a new, healthy, home-grown snack. With this information, as well as a sense of morbid curiosity, Westbrook set about her experiment.
Janet Jay provides invaluable insight into Westbrook’s scientific method. According to the author, “She set up a positive control (made with actual yogurt as the starter culture) and a negative control (plain milk with nothing added), and combined her own home-made ingredient to the third batch of yogurt.” Westbrook’s collection technique apparently revolved around a wooden spoon.
After a night’s fermentation, the batch was ready for tasting. The reviews were largely positive, with Jay reporting that “(the) first batch of yogurt tasted sour, tangy, and almost tingly on the tongue.” Westbrook went on to pair the product with a bowl of blueberries.
Despite the yoghurt turning out remarkably close to edible, it did not take long for dissenting voices to rain on Westbrook’s parade. According to Larry Forney, a microbiologist at the University of Idaho and serial vagina party-pooper, harvesting bacterial cells from the vagina is not simply a matter of shoving a spoon up there and giving it a whisk. Unfortunately, this rudimentary collects not just the desired lactobacillus, but all many of mystery nasties that may be lurking. As such, any yoghurt based on this culture may inadvertently contain pathogens as well as good bacteria.
Though vagina yoghurt still has a long way to go, Westbrook’s work still feels like a seminal moment for dairy-based feminism. Presumably to the annoyance of patriarchs everywhere, we now know that women can, if pushed, make their own food. Never mind the taste, this proves once again that women’s bodies really are much cooler than men’s.