I’ll admit that I’ve conflated my self-worth with a number reflected on a scale exactly one time: upon my first visit to the 16 Handles in Greenwich Village. The year was 2011 and the burst of the frozen yogurt bubble that encased New York City was nigh. But I didn’t know that. All I knew was that the pay-by-weight model introduced by 16 Handles permitted—nay, encouraged—me to self-serve tart confectionaries into a pink paper cup the size of a Shetland Pony, but which the cheery employees mercifully called, “medium.” I had read somewhere that self-serve froyo shouldn’t tip the scale beyond $4 dollars. I relegated that silly nutritional fact to a dusty corner of my brain and contemplated heath bar crunch as dollar signs edged past $10 and ultimately settled around $13.
How will I afford this luxury I wish to turn into habit—like skincare, or rhythmically humping a stationary bike? I wondered.
Quick math told me I could either forgo carob chips or find a boyfriend alive with chivalry, one who’d balk at a woman offering to pay. The choice was obvious, but eating froyo with a dude just didn’t feel the same. Just the other night, my husband and I were walking the dog after a particularly rough day and in an effort to cheer me up, he asked, “How about some frozen yogurt?” First of all, kind human, it’s froyo. Secondly—and this was in no part due to the freezing temps outside—I just wasn’t feeling it. There is something about hoovering liquid red velvet birthday cake in the company of women that feels so right.
The bubble may have burst but… frozen yogurt still hits
Virtually since its inception (or rather, the 2007 opening of LA’s first Pinkberry and the ensuing chaos), froyo has occupied a special corner in our cultural consciousness. I struggle to find a rival culinary phenomenon that has persisted in the way that froyo has. Food trends like the cronut and, dare I say, avocado toast, have either faded in relevance or been documented ad nauseam. Even as shops like Red Mango and Pinkberry began to shutter locations as quickly as they opened and froyo seemed destined for a fate akin to Jamba Juice’s (RIP, kind of), the probiotic pastiche prevailed. And despite reports from Grub Street and Bloomberg that consumers have soured on frozen yogurt, my experience has been that the collective female desire for the “mindful” indulgence still reigns supreme.
When I pose the question as to why, my friends are quick to respond. Two things immediately become clear: there is a fair amount of guilt associated with a food that’s built a reputation on the absence of it, and two, that paradox is elemental to froyo’s lure. For example, one friend recounted driving from Brooklyn to Penn Station for Tasti-D-Lite, and then satisfying her craving by pulling over and eating pints in her car. Another reminisced about her freshman year at an all female college; where a floor full of smart women with strong and often conflicting opinions were bonded around Pinkberry’s flavor of the month. “I ate it my entire pregnancy,” said another. One friend, who admits “zero self control” when it comes to Bloomingdale’s mainstay, Forty Carrots, avoids walking past the department store entirely. Every single person I spoke to mentioned the proceeding stomach bloat.
Central to froyo’s appeal? The white lies we tell ourselves
There is a fair amount of self-trickery involved with froyo, and I’m hesitant to chalk it all up to marketing. Many experts have been quick to point out that not all froyos are created equal, and in some cases, ice cream is a better bet. But would it really feel the same adding sliced strawberries to your Ben and Jerry’s? The green juice craze is often to blame for city-wide froyo busts, but who reaches for a kale celery concoction as a reward after a long work day? Is female bonding as satisfying when it happens over 130 strains of Aloe? Does the sound of your Nutribullet quicken your pulse like a self-serve froyo machine gone rogue? Maybe you’re familiar with the scenario: Peanut Butter Perfection keeps whirring even though you’ve turned the lever, and the result is as high as Everest and you have to use the flat side of a spoon to press the chocolate crunch into the sides of your swirl, but Vesuvius is about to blow, so you slurp bits off the top as you make your way to the scale of shame, a flake-gulping fish in a candy-colored tank.
You know the feeling? It’s like illicit excitement with a sprinkle of shame, an emotional cocktail women have been served for generations. You can hear it expressed in idioms like: “I’ve been so bad.” But reaching for a froyo isn’t the same as participating in a 9,000 calorie cheat day. After all, it is yogurt. It’s not overly saccharine. It balances gut bacteria. Charlotte dug into a cup of Tasti D in the 2006 episode of Sex and the City that launched a thousand ships!!! (Cup size: Small.)
Regardless, we shall remain loyal year-round
In my research for this piece, which included me taste testing over ten variations of Vanilla Bean (shout out to Downtown Yogurt), I came across this gem of a quote from a 2008 New York Times article: “[H]igh-school girls in miniskirts, Uggs and goose bumps stood outside Yolato on the Upper West Side, spooning up soft-serve. ‘We come here every day,’ said Shira Cohen, a 10th-grader. ‘I start thinking about the toppings even before second period.’” Something about the imagery struck me—and it wasn’t the UGG Boots, although damn, I miss the relative innocence of 2008 teen fashion. I think more than anything, I was glad for young Shira and her unbridled elation for overpriced granola and frozen aisle blueberries. I related to the inherent irony of her specific situation: Putting yourself through the cold to wait for something that will only make you more cold. And although Yelp reports that this Yolato has since closed, I don’t believe such a statement would be out of place today.
One Yelper wrote of the froyo shop: “I came to Yolato so that I could shake my head in disdain at the people who eat here because when I want ice cream, I buy damn ice cream. Now I must swallow crow, but at least it’s a pretty tasty crow.” Well, Heather M. of New York, Shira Cohen and her legion of 10th graders did not want for ice cream. Wanting ice cream and craving frozen yogurt are not one and the same. Froyo is the closest we have to besting one of life’s greatest malfeasances: Why is everything that tastes good, bad for you?
And if “having it all” is as untenable a quest as it seems to be, well then frozen yogurt might be the closest we ever get.
Photos by Alistair Matthews. Prop Styling by Max Rappaport.