Americans spend more than $7.5 billion on yogurt each year according to Business Week, and the hottest trend in yogurt in the last few years is “Greek yogurt.” Unlike regular yogurt, Greek yogurt is thicker and contains less sugar while providing more protein. In the diet-obsessed culture of the United States, Greek yogurt is widely hailed as a healthier version of regular yogurt. It is also significantly more expensive.
But this is not the first time that a special fermented milk product from the Mediterranean region has been introduced and marketed to Americans.
While searching the records of the Maryland Agricultural Experiment Station for correspondence, we discovered an odd entry titled “Sultan’s Matzoon.” The folder yielded a single card advertising the “Sultan’s Matzoon Co.,” at 45 Liberty Street in New York. The card assured the reader that “Sultan’s Matzoon is prepared fresh every day from the purest milk.”
A Google search turned up an article written by H. J. Patterson, who was the director of the Experiment Station from 1898-1937, promoting Sultan’s Matzoon. In the article, which was published in 1894 in Agricultural Science Vol. VIII, Patterson described Matzoon as being thick like cream, with “a very sharp acid taste, with a flavor something like that of buttermilk.” This version of Matzoon was sold in bottles as a beverage, unlike yogurt which is generally eaten with a spoon.
Harry Jacob Patterson was not only the director of the Experiment Station, he also served as the president of the college from 1913 until 1917, following the devastating fire that struck the campus in 1912. He was responsible for rebuilding the campus and reorganizing the school along more modern lines, preparing the groundwork for the University of Maryland to develop into a major research university. He also promoted the value of agricultural research to the state and local farmers. During his tenure with the Experiment Station, he championed research into dairy products and dairy animal husbandry, including building a dairy barn on the campus in the early 1900s to further research and provide the students fresh milk and butter. This likely explains his interest in Sultan’s Matzoon.
Matzoon is a traditional Armenian food and very similar to yogurt. Dr. Markar Gevork Dadirrian, a native of Turkey who emigrated to the United States, is credited by some sources with introducing “Matzoon” to America in 1885, according to the National Cyclopedia of American Biography. But the first major yogurt brand in the US, Colombo, was started by Armenian immigrants in Massachusetts in 1929, who originally branded the product “madzoon” before changing it to the more widely recognized yogurt, the Turkish word for fermented milk products. The Massachusetts Historical Society has one of the original Colombo glass bottles in their collection.
Yogurt, having been a staple food across much of Asia and the Middle East for centuries, was popularized in the US by John Harvey Kellogg, the creator of Kellogg cereal, among others, in the early 20th century but has taken off in popularity in recent years.
Between 2007 and 2012, Greek yogurt went from holding roughly 4% of the US yogurt market to 35%. There is no data on how popular or successful “Sultan’s Matzoon” was a century ago, but it is fair to say it did not make the impression its relative from Greece has made on Americans.