I have a confession: Until Daniel Gritzer told me about The White Moustache a couple of months ago, I ‘d never heard of it, much less its founder, Homa Dashtaki. Now, after interviewing Homa and trying her yogurt, I can tell you that Daniel was right when he said it would change my life. First of all, the yogurt is so tasty, so thick and creamy, that I can’t think of a reason not to eat some every day (which I’ve done ever since first trying it). Secondly, Homa is a force of nature, someone whose point of view and story might be better than her ridiculously good yogurt, as you’ll find out in her two episodes of Special Sauce.
Homa even arrived on this earth in dramatic fashion. “I was born the day of the Iranian Revolution,” she tells me. “So the day that the Ayatollah arrived in Iran I was born, and my mom had to go to the hospital in a police escort because there was a curfew, and that’s probably why I’m so wired to like chaos all around me.”
After emigrating as a child to Orange County, she ended up going to law school and, yes, practicing corporate law for a while. Why? “Oh, I loved the whole idea of it. You would tell me what you wanted, you’d put down on paper, everything would be clear,” she recalls. “And I remember when I first found out about prenups, I remember everyone was very negative about them. I’m like, ‘How wonderful! When you’re getting into this really intense relationship that everyone would just be above board, you either know how great it’s gonna be, or how fucked you’re gonna be. It’s all laid out.'”
Her legal career was cut short after she was laid off from her firm. And, after a period of self-described drifting, she found herself drawn to one of the foods that was a staple of her childhood. “We picked making yogurt because to me it was easy, I was being lazy about it,” she says. “I’m like, ‘There’s only one ingredient, milk, right? Now how hard can this be?'”
It turned out that Homa fell in love with making yogurt. “I don’t know if you’ve ever made yogurt at home, but it’s a very magical process,” she observes. “It’s almost like you step into a time portal, and you have to slow down time. In order for your yogurt to take, it has to be coddled. You have to boil the milk, and you have to get it to the right temperature. That’s actually no easy task. You have to pay attention to the milk, you can’t just set it and forget it.”
She and her father started out making small batches- eight gallons to be exact- of yogurt overnight at a nearby Egyptian restaurant and selling it at a farmers market in Orange County. She was in heaven, until the state of California shut her down. “I had finally found something that was truly my own, and it felt so- I know it sounds cliché and it sounds cheesy- but it was so authentic, and I was so lost, that to have this thing ripped away from me felt so incredibly unfair,” she recalls. “And I just fought back after weeping for days. I mean, it was like somebody had ripped something away from me.”
To find out how she got her yogurt groove back, you’re just going to have to listen to Homa tell the story herself on Special Sauce. It’s definitely a story you won’t want to miss.
Ed Levine: Welcome to Special Sauce, Serious Eats’ podcast about food and life. Every week on Special Sauce we talk to some of the leading lights of American culture, food folks and non-food folks alike.
Homa Dashtaki: We picked making yogurt because to me it was easy, I was being lazy about it. I’m like, “There’s only one ingredient, milk, right. Now how hard can this be?” And I was single, and I was like, “I’m gonna go and flirt with boys at the farmers market.” That was my goal.
EL: This week it my distinct pleasure to welcome Homa Dashtaki, the founder of the best commercially available yogurt on the planet, at the very least, the best one I’ve ever tasted, White Mustache yogurt. I have personally contributed thousands of dollars to your 401k, Homa. I just want you to know that.
HD: Well, I thank you.
EL: I have one of your yogurts every day for breakfast. Welcome to Special Sauce. It’s so nice to have you here.
HD: That’s very generous. Thank you!
EL: So many interesting chapters in the story of your life, so let’s jump right in. First, tell us about life at the Dashtaki family table growing up. I want all the not-so-gory details, like where, what, when, and why.
HD: Well, I mean, to me it seems quite boring, but we are immigrants, my family and I. I was born in Iran. I was born the day of the Iranian Revolution. So the day that the Ayatollah arrived to Iran I was born, and my mom had to go to the hospital in a police escort because there was a curfew, and that’s probably why I’m so wired to like chaos all around me.
EL: That’s probably the most dramatic entrance I’ve ever heard.
HD: Right. And now I’m just used to fanfare no matter what I do. I’m like, “Where’s my parade?” But yeah. That was like my childhood until I was eight. We were in the middle of the revolution, then there was the Iran/Iraq War where missile sirens at night and everything was normal, and you had birthday parties that you still went to, and there were weddings that you still went to, and life still went on. It wasn’t until I was an adult here that I would recount the story, and be like, “Oh that was probably a little weird or strange, out of the ordinary.”
HD: And then we had an uncle who had come to America about 16 years before I was born, and he had been able to get green cards for all of his brothers. So we came in through that wait list.
EL: The stuff that Trump wouldn’t allow these days.
HD: I mean, yeah. He probably wouldn’t be into it. But we got in, and settled in Orange County, California. I went to school. We went there because there was a large Zoroastrian population there.
EL: How would you describe Zoroastrian, is it an ethnic group within Iran?
HD: A little bit, but it’s a religion.
EL: Got it.
HD: I mean, I kind of think of it the same way maybe in America is analogous to the Native Americans. Zoroastrianism was the first monotheistic religion of the Persian Empire, and then it dwindled down into what is modern day Iran. And my family comes from a town called Yazd, which is in southern Iran in the middle, in the desert region.
EL: Before you left for the States, what was life like at your family table?
HD: I mean, I remember growing up and hating bell peppers, because my mom would always make this one rice dish with tomatoes and lima beans and bell peppers and ground meat in it. And I would have to sit there until it was finished. There was always a rice dish on the table, and there’s always something called khoresh, which is like a stew that you put on top of the rice. And there was always pickles, like a garlic pickle, or a cauliflower pickle, and there’s always yogurt.
EL: And there was always yogurt.
HD: There was always yogurt.
EL: There’s where yogurt makes its entrance into your life.
HD: Right, I mean, it’s always been there, and it’s a way that you rescue a meal. So if your rice is a little soggy, or if it’s a little dry, the yogurt saves it. If your stew isn’t flavored as much, your yogurt saves it.
EL: And this was yogurt that they made?
HD: Yeah, we made yogurt at home all the time. And it’s like … not because we were being gourmet foodies. Even in the States when we came here, I thought everyone made yogurt at home too, and I just thought this is what we do. Growing up when I would see like a Yoplait on the shelves at the store, I would always ask my mom like, “Why can’t we have that?” Because that seemed like special yogurt to me. And so, it’s just like a different in perspective.
EL: Did you always love it?
HD: Yogurt? Yeah, like I always loved rice, and tea, and other things that were just always there. It was just such a comfort. Rice and yogurt is an Iranian kind of comfort food, like it comforts an upset stomach, and it’s something you eat if you’re … It sounds boring, but if you’re bored of cooking, it’s the perfect meal, crack a few peppers on top, and that’s like, it just goes down perfectly. And then potato chips and yogurt is a typical Iranian snack food. And you eat it-
EL: Wow! How come we never see that here?
HD: I’ve had trouble getting savory yogurt to people. The thought of yogurt and sour translates to spoiled.
EL: You made a shallot yogurt for a while, right?
HD: Yeah. I still do. It’s just hard to reconcile White Mustache’s sour cherries, and dates, and quince with shallot. The most responses I’ve gotten about the shallot yogurt through emails that we get feedback is like complaints. Like, “I picked up this yogurt, and it didn’t go well with my granola.” And I’m like, “Well, okay. I’m sorry about that. That’s my fault. I should have put a disclaimer on that.”
EL: Do not combine with granola.
EL: Your family moved to Southern California in ’87 into a town with a large Zoroastrian community.
EL: And what was that like? Was it hard to move to the States? Did you miss your friends? Did you miss Iran?
HD: I was too young to really figure it out in that sense and to say I missed Iran or something. I had such a connection with the Zoroastrian community in Orange County that it felt like that was my safe place, where people were just like me, and had weird names, and ate weird food, but to us that was all normal. And then we would go to school. And school and our neighbors, and every place else was like another community that I had access to and had to figure out how to fit in. I think the hardest part for me would be going back to Iran, and being like, “Okay, I don’t fit in here either anymore because now I’m American,” but then being in America and be like, “Well, I don’t fit in here either because everyone thinks I’m Iranian.”
EL: You know, a lot of people that have been on Special Sauce talk about that dual discomfort. Ed Lee talks about that, the Korean-American chef in DC. And it’s such an interesting thing because you don’t … usually people say, “Oh, I love going back to my homeland.” And then you realize, it’s an odd thing to go back and forth.
HD: Right. It’s this uncanny familiarity that you’re still foreign too, because you’re visiting when you go back home. But then when you’re here in America, which is home, I didn’t feel truly American, or that I can identify as American, or that America gave me permission to identify as American until I went to London, and I studied abroad. When I was here, I would tell everyone I’m Iranian because that’s what the script was. And when I went to London, I’d be like, “I’m Iranian.” And all my British peers, and friends would be like, “No you’re not. Listen to your accent. Listen to the things you talk about. Look at the kind of cheese you eat. You’re American.”
EL: That’s so, so interesting.
HD: And I was like, “Of course” … And it just took the other, kind of like this other to validate that identity for me at the age of 19, and that was pretty incredible.
EL: Yeah. That’s interesting because at home did you speak English or Farsi?
HD: Farsi. We spoke Farsi, and we spoke a dialect of Farsi that the Zoroastrians speak, which is Dari. And, I mean, on top of all of this, I’m feeling guilty because the Zoroastrian community is only 100,000 practicing people left in the world between Iran, India, the U.S. and London, and you feel this weight of your culture, like if I don’t keep up these traditions, they’re gonna die off. And you’re part of the progress. Like we now live in America. I don’t live and breathe the Zoroastrian culture the way I would if I was still living in Iran surrounded by only that community. I’ve had to translates that level of guilt somehow. I mean, White Mustache for like … maybe from what it seems like from the outside, but to me it’s almost like the explosion of all of this identity crisis, and where does it have a home, and it’s like in this little product that comes out it’s the result of my catharsis.
EL: Well you told Nikita Richardson of Fast Company, you said, “I don’t know what it is about this yogurt, but it’s the first authentic thing I’ve ever done. It’s like bringing in this other part of my identity that I never really gave a lot of credit to. I didn’t know how to celebrate being different.”
HD: Yeah. Well, first of all, Nikita is very disarming, so that is … That women is amazing that she got that out of-
EL: You ain’t seen nothing yet when it comes to disarming.
HD: I know. I mean I’m already like, “Whatever.” But yeah, I almost didn’t know it, but it is the most authentic thing I’ve ever created, and it’s got a big white mustache on it, which represents my father. It’s in a glass jar, which represents how I feel about the environment. And also, the amount of work that goes into the yogurt is me holding on to our tradition and the art of making yogurt, which, by the way, my whole family laughs at. They’re like, “What? You’re making yogurt, and selling it. It’s the oldest thing. It’s the simplest thing. Why aren’t you doing more complicated things, like making granola, or making something more Western, or special?” And it’s like it’s too simple.
EL: Yeah. You’ve literally gone native on them.
HD: Yes. Right. And I think something that’s come out of this that’s very special is I’ve kind of inspired, I guess, the young people in our community to value these things instead of running away from them, and being like, “Well maybe I can add value through these things in the outside.” I’m like, “Maybe what we have from within is what’s valuable.” Something as simple as yogurt that’s always been in front of us, that I actually made without even thinking about it.
EL: Yeah. That’s so interesting. Are the Zoroastrians persecuted now in Iran, the ones that are left? I can’t imagine they’re made to feel comfortable.
HD: Right. And it’s just because they’re in a religious government, so it’s like an Islamic Republic where in schools you’re taught the Quran, where we’re not taught that. There’s really no motivation to learn it except to grow within the academic system. So there is just a huge, I guess formal distinction between Zoroastrians and the rest of the community, but a lot of our friends are Muslim, and when you go there, I just feel that the Iranian people as a culture are so hospitable, and so generous in spirit, and warm. Our last trip there, we never stayed at a hotel. You literally just drive through the countryside, and we’re like, “Can we stay at your house?” And the person-
EL: People you don’t know?
HD: People I don’t know. And they let you stay in their spare bedroom, you give them some cash, and you’re like, “Can you make us that dish that you’re cooking for your family for us too?” And it’s been like … And I learned that from my dad, because when he was doing it, I was like, “Daddy, is this legal? Are we allowed to do this?” It was actually very, very special.
EL: Yeah. It was a de facto Iranian Airbnb.
EL: I mean, just in case … if you wanted to start a business, I’ll be partners with you. So you ended up at UCLA and then you went to law school.
EL: And you also told Nikita, “I wanted to a lawyer since I was very young because I thought the idea of writing contracts and having everyone’s expectations down on paper was so civilized.”
HD: Oh, I loved the whole idea of it. You would tell me what you wanted, you’d put down on paper, everything would be clear. And I remember when I first found out about prenups, I remember everyone was very negative about them. I’m like, “How wonderful! When you’re getting into this really intense relationship that everyone would just be above board, you either know how great it’s gonna be, or how fucked you’re gonna be. It’s all laid out.”
EL: That’s awesome.
HD: I love it. And I came from so much chaos too that it was just like, okay. And it could be private situation, where it’s not like the government imposing the civility, like two individuals are being very clear about what they want, putting it down on paper. And I love that.
EL: But then you went to work for a corporate law firm. Like a very fancy one, as far as I can tell. And then you got laid off. I don’t think you fell in love with practicing law because from what I’ve read, you wandered for a while after that. What did you do? You didn’t just start sending your resume out to other law firms.
HD: No. It’s funny you say that because I became a lawyer because I checked off all the boxes. It’s like a good girl, I went to school, went to law school, got a good job, and I got to wear fancy clothes, and work on fancy deals, and really be full of myself for a while. And then once I got laid off, I remember, I had, like one of our clients was like, “Oh, we’d like for you to come work in-house.” And I went and I interviewed for that job. And I so did not want that job. They would ask me questions that I should have known, and I answered it as if I had not been working in the finance industry forever. It’s like I had been working at like Dairy Queen for the last five years, or something. I just did not wanna go back to it, and I just wandered.
EL: I had the same experience. I worked at a big ad agency after business school, and then got laid off mercifully because they tried to tell me how to walk, and all this stuff. And then I went, I had a job interview as like a product manager at Colgate-Palmolive and they started asking me all these questions, I was like, “I’m not answering these questions in any way that they’re gonna find acceptable because I don’t want this job. I would hate myself if I went there every day.” So you had that same experience.
HD: Yeah. And it’s very visceral. It’s not like I thought about it, or it was conscious. It was like, I just am not going to answer these questions.
EL: What did you end up doing?
HD: I got bored. I got really really bored. I went to an avocado farm, and I thought I would pitch in at the avocado farm.
EL: That’s good. Traditional linear career path.
HD: Absolutely. I left the East Coast, went to an avocado farm in San Diego, and it turns out it wasn’t even avocado season. So there I am unemployed, a little depressed, think I’d just broken up with somebody, and I was chain smoking in this beautiful avocado farm for three months. It was really depressing. And then after that, as one does, I, being very type A, throw myself into something intensely, I took up yoga, and I just started doing yoga religiously for a year-and-a-half. I will say that probably has been the biggest skill sets I’ve put to use to this date, like meditating and doing crazy yoga, and then I started teaching yoga, which I was really bad at, because I would just yell at people. Like, “Come on, you’re not even trying.” And so, that was bad.
EL: That’s really not my idea of what I would regard as an ideal yoga teacher.
HD: Well sometimes people need a good kick in the pants. That was my role. Yeah, nobody was really coming to yoga class for that. No one’s ready for the tough love yoga teacher.
EL: When you came back, you talk about your dad fell into a funk. What happened to him, and how did you two sort of figure out that what you wanted to do was make yogurt?
HD: Well that latter part was a total accident, figuring out how to make yogurt. What had happened was my dad’s brother had committed suicide. And I mean, I don’t know about, I don’t want to say in the Iranian culture, but it’s just a hard thing to talk about, and we’re not very big on mental health in our community, or talking about it. And there’s a shame that comes with somebody in the family having committed suicide, that you don’t talk about. And, this is the uncle who I mentioned like 16 years before I was born had gotten … He was responsible for bringing us all to America.
EL: Wow! He was like the paternal figure in the family as a whole.
HD: Yeah. Yeah. And he was awesome. He was so charismatic. Even though he was Zoroastrian, he was in North Carolina, he was very active in the Baptist church there in North Carolina because he just wanted community.
EL: You gotta find your community where you can find it. In North Carolina it’s the Baptist church.
HD: Yeah, it’s like these are my people and we’re cool. And he was amazing. And then to find out that he passed in that way was such a cloud of mystery, and my dad just wasn’t processing it very well. We’ve always been close, my dad and I, and I was unemployed at that time, and he was going through this, and I was like, “We gotta do something.” It was just a hobby. We picked making yogurt because it was just something he would do all the time anyway, and to me it was easy, and I was being lazy about it. I’m like, “There’s only one ingredient, milk. How hard can this be?”
EL: Right. I got this.
HD: I got this. I was single, and I was like, “I’m gonna go and flirt with boys at the farmers market.” That was my goal. That was my goal.
EL: It’s interesting you talk about with you and your dad that yogurt was something to help you both get through. You talked about you didn’t wanna start a business, you needed therapy.
HD: Therapy, yep. It was something physical, like physically creating something, and honestly, not having to think about it. It was just so easy, and so repetitive, and so … I don’t know if you’ve ever made yogurt at home, but it’s a very magical process. It’s almost like you step into a time portal, and you have to slow down time. In order for your yogurt to take, it has to be coddled. You have to boil the milk, and you have to get it to the right temperature. That’s actually no easy task. You have to pay attention to the milk, you can’t just set it and forget it. And, we’re not making this in a machine. We’re actually just using fire, and that’s it. If I could teach anyone how to make yogurt, I’d wanna teach you how to make it. If all you had was a gallon of milk, and that’s it. That’s how we were making yogurt because that’s how he had always made it, and I didn’t wanna reinvent the wheel with anything.
EL: Did you develop your yogurt culture just through stirring, just through the preparation?
HD: And you would just use the culture from the previous batch. So whatever batch we had in our fridge from the last time, we would use it. At the beginning we were using cultures from like, there’s a brand of yogurt in California called Mountain High that we got at the local Iranian stores, and just use that, and then whatever we would make from that, would be in the fridge, and then we would make the other batches from that.
EL: Then you started making the yogurt in an Egyptian restaurant?
HD: Oh yeah. So California, you know how you find miraculous restaurants in strip malls? Like all of a sudden there’s this gourmet sushi place in this weird strip mall that’s totally unassuming. There was this Egyptian restaurant in a strip mall right near my parents house, that was so … they made their own hummus from scratch. I walked in and I was like, “I would like to use your kitchen to make yogurt,” because we wanted to sell at farmers markets, and there was a permit or something, and you needed to-
EL: Because you needed to meet the guys at the farmers market.
HD: Right, exactly. I’m like, “I need to go flirt, so we need to use a kitchen at night to make yogurt.” And he was great. He let us come in at night from like 9:00 when he shut down, and let us work through the night, and then when he came in at 11:00, we’d be all wrapped up and finished, and take our stuff with us, and leave some yogurt in the fridge. I felt like Christmas elves or something. We’d just scurry in and make it and then leave. We were only making eight gallons of yogurt a week.
EL: Wow! How did it go at the farmers market both selling the yogurt and meeting guys?
HD: Yeah, so the first farmers market we went to was in Huntington Beach, California. It was raining, we’re right on the beach, and we made $12.
EL: Don’t spend it all in one place.
HD: No, no. Definitely not. But, that was the moment, and I always joke about this, that’s when I knew we made it. I’m like, “This is the thing.” It cost like $80 for the booth or something, and I was like, “All my education,” my light bulb goes off, I’m like, “Yep, this is a winner.” I think we sold, we were selling them at like $4 a jar then, so we sold three jars, and it was people’s reactions to the yogurt. They were tasting yogurt for the first time.
EL: I felt that was when I tasted your yogurt, man.
HD: Stop teasing.
EL: No. It’s true. I don’t make that stuff up.
HD: And imagine, to me, this was the simplest thing we were doing at home, and as a child I was begging my mom for Yoplait because I thought that was the fancy American thing to do. So when I saw people’s reactions it felt very special and moving, and that I was sharing a part of us or my culture that I would normally either try to hide, or even try to paint over, or somehow make glossier, and this was just pure, raw Iranian yogurt. All the flavors we had … we didn’t put out blueberry, or chocolate, or strawberry. We would put out … sour cherry did not come into existence until we came to New York. I was doing the orange blossom, honey, and walnuts in L.A., and the mint walnut raisin.
EL: Which you’re not doing anymore?
HD: We do that for two weeks in the winter time. Around the winter solstice.
EL: You’ve gotta let me know when that happens. But then you started making more yogurt, selling more yogurt, and seemed like things were, from what I read, were going pretty well, and then you get this phone call that sort of throws the whole thing into reverse. What happened?
HD: Yeah. We started at the Huntington Beach Farmers Market. We went from the Huntington Beach Farmers Market, we added the Irvine Farmers Market, then we were looking at the Fullerton Farmers Market, and then we get into Laguna Beach Farmers Market, which like in the farmers market world, you’ve really made it. I don’t know, my sister’s very convinced that the olive lady called us into the state department, or somebody did.
EL: The state health department, or whatever.
HD: It was the dairy regulations.
EL: Got it. Got it.
HD: We had had all of our city, and county, and local permits to do it. That’s why we were working at the commercial kitchen. And again, we’re just there to flirt with boys, and sell some yogurt. We knew we were on to something, but at no point was I like, “I’m sinking my life into this,” and making it a business. And then it was like two hours into the Laguna Beach Farmers Market, we’d almost sold everything that we had brought, so we were like, “This is amazing.” And then it was only my sister and I who went to that market. By this point my dad had been kicked out of the business because he just argued with me too much.
EL: That’s one way to calm down a family business.
EL: Just throw the father out.
HD: Just throw the father out. And I’ve been kicked out plenty of times too. It’s just sometimes I bully my way back in. And so, we get the call from this woman named Scarlett Treviso who runs the California Food and Drug Administration for that region, and she calls me on a Saturday morning on my cell phone, which I have no idea how she got, saying that if I don’t shut down the booth they’re gonna fine me $10,000 and send me to prison for a year. And at this-
EL: She wasn’t kidding?
HD: I thought she was kidding. I thought it was a law school buddy of mine who found out I was making yogurt, and wanted to take the piss, and make fun of me, and I was like, “Oh, haha, this is a really good one.” And she was like, “No, I’m serious.” And I was like, “You can’t be serious. I’m making it in a … I can show you all of our permits, and I’m making eight gallons of milk a week, and you’re probably thinking of someone who’s using raw milk, or one of these other things that California cracks down on so much.” But I was buying my milk from the grocery store.
EL: It can’t be a more commercial product.
HD: There really couldn’t have been more … I’m buying the milk that I buy at Vons. Well, we were getting it at Broguiere’s Dairy, which is like a very fancy California dairy. And, in glass bottles that I was paying for at retail. And I was like, “There’s no way that I’m doing what you think I’m doing. I’ll come and show it” … And she’s like, “No, you need to shut down right now, or I’ll be there in an hour.” And I was like, “Okay, this is ridiculous.” I remember she said something on that call that really just has been a splinter in my soul since she said it. And it was like, she had said that just a few months ago she had shut down a Mexican family who was doing the same, and a Vietnamese family that was making a milkshake. And I was like, “You sound like a racist, dude.” These people are probably making good food, and they’re probably small families like mine, but they’re probably small families like mine who don’t have a law degree, and don’t have the kind of privilege and education I have.
So I guess I’m either very stubborn, or was very bored, or the truth is, I had finally found something that was truly my own, and it felt so, I know it sounds cliché and it sounds cheesy, but it was so authentic, and I was so lost that to have this thing ripped away from me felt so incredibly unfair. And I just fought back after weeping for days. I mean, it was like somebody had ripped something away from me that was like-
EL: Like it ripped your heart out.
HD: Yeah, it was inconsolable. I just thought this isn’t right. One night maybe a week or so after that, I just decided to tell everybody about this. And I got on the website for the Economist, which is my favorite magazine, and I wrote this seething email-
EL: I think that’s true of all yogurt makers, by the way. They all love the Economist.
HD: Yeah. And I remember writing into like, it was just their regular comments page, like, “Submit your comments to this.” And thank God they didn’t have a word limit, because I just let it rip. I was like, “This is what happened to my tiny yogurt company in Southern California, and we were making eight gallons of yogurt a week, and we were up to 35 gallons of yogurt a week because of these new markets we were in, and this is what happened, and this is what they’re telling us.” And the Economist picked up the story.
HD: That was incredible. It’s just felt like that since the beginning. It’s like that moment at the Huntington Beach market when someone tasted it for the first time, and it’s like, “Wow! This is something.” I think there’s something about what we’re doing and what White Mustache is that’s so much bigger than me, and not in my hands at all. It’s resonating with people because they have their own thing-
EL: Yeah. You’d felt like you found the thing, and I know about this feeling because I’ve had it myself, like this is what you were put on this earth to do and nobody was gonna stop you from doing it.
HD: That’s right. That’s right. Besides the Economist article, which was great and got us some opportunities that didn’t pan out, but a lot of attention, it inspired me to stay in California, and fight. I used my legal degree, and we went up to Sacramento for two years to try to fight this, and submitted lab reports from generous scientists who donated their time to put together data that like, “This is why this woman who’s buying milk from a grocery store is not in any way harming public health by reboiling her milk and turning it into yogurt.” I was like, “I’ll commit to only staying in farmers markets. And I’ll commit to only making this amount. I’ll commit to whatever you want to commit to, but what I won’t do is invest half a million dollars in equipment that you need in order to make sure that human hands don’t touch the milk.”
From the moment that the milk is boiled to the moment the yogurt is capped in it’s container, they didn’t want it to touch human hands. And to me this is how we lose the art of yogurt making. This is how we lose the art of food production. This is why we do need that Vietnamese family, and that Mexican family making their cheeses and their milkshakes, and paying attention to how that’s done if there’s a real public health concern to it. But maybe removing some of the barrier to entries that surround that.
EL: How did you end up convincing them?
HD: I didn’t.
EL: You didn’t?
HD: I didn’t.
EL: So you lost after the two years. That’s a lot of bus trips to Sacramento, a lot of gas.
HD: Mm-hmm. And we had pro bono counsel. I mean talk about taking a sledgehammer to a fly. I was there with a bazooka, like “I got this.” And I didn’t have it. I lost.
EL: Wow! Wow!
HD: And I realized that I was going to die before the bureaucracy let me change things. Because imagine if there was a whole bunch of little yogurt makers in California that had to be regulated. It’s a regulatory nightmare. The Economist article got the attention of then Secretary of State Brown, who’s now the Governor of Oregon, Kate Brown. And she invited us up there. She’s like, “We want to make Portland the food city. You should come and make it up here.” But even their regulators couldn’t wrap their mind around like, “Why do you wanna boil your milk yourself? You can use machines to do it. Here’s a university you can do it in.” And then they were like, “But financially this is not viable.” And I was like, “Probably not. But give me the opportunity to fail on my own terms.”
EL: Yeah. This is not my sour cherry jam.
HD: Yeah. Exactly. Exactly. And then we, by miracle, after miracle, ended up in Brooklyn where the rules are exactly the same as they are in California, but they were willing to be like, “Okay, show us your process. And how can we get you in line with what you need to do.”
EL: Got it. So wow, that’s insane.
HD: It’s totally insane.
EL: Homa Dashtaki, our time is up for this episode, but we still haven’t even gotten to how I got to taste the yogurt that has changed my life, my digestive tract, my marriage, forever. So I’m gonna say goodbye for now Serious Eaters, and then Homa is going to fill us in on her life in New York City. So long Serious Eaters, we’ll see you next time, and thank you Homa for beginning to share your story with us.
HD: Thank you, Ed.