Momtrepreneur (and Genius Recipe hall-of-famer) Anita Shepherd joins host Kristen Miglore to discuss how Anita's been slowly veganizing her family's Thanksgiving, and what it's been like running Anita's Yogurt from home.
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Kristen Miglore (voiceover): Hi. I'm Kristen Miglore, lifelong genius hunter. For almost a decade, I've been unearthing the recipes that have changed the way we cook. On The Genius Recipe Tapes, we’re sharing the behind-the-scenes moments from talking with the geniuses themselves that we couldn't quite squeeze into the column or video: the extra-genius tricks, the off-road riffs, and the personal stories that actually have nothing to do with the recipe that week.
Kristen: My guest this week is my longtime friend Anita Shepherd. You might remember Anita for her vegan chocolate cake with super fluffy frosting, which was the cover star of the Genius Desserts Cookbook. Or you might know her as the founder of Anita's Yogurt, the first yogurt in the world to be Fair Trade Certified—a company that she's been running for seven years on her own without investors. We talked about how all that's been going while also homeschooling her daughter Ramona. And how her family's now almost totally veganized Thanksgiving will look this year.
Kristen: Hi, Anita.
Anita: Hey Kristen.
Kristen: It's so good to see your face.
Anita: Yes, always good to see yours.
Kristen: I wanted to start with something that's top of mind for me. and I assume for a lot of people: Thanksgiving. Because you're recently telling me that you have basically veganized your family's whole Thanksgiving besides the turkey. So I would love to hear about that and how that's working for you and your family, and also how it might be different this year
Anita: Yeah so Thanksgiving is like the Super Bowl of holidays for my family. I have a huge family. My Mom is Colombian and typically, our Thanksgiving will consist of between 25 to 40 people. And everyone sleeps over. I have one cousin who is outdoorsy, and he will bring a tent for him and his partner. And everyone else just has to grab a spot somewhere. Being that we're friends and we have been friends for a while, you have gotten to witness this firsthand. I remember you made one of your family's classic Thanksgiving dishes, which was the Rumaki appetizer. Which my family went crazy for because they love meat and they love bacon. Bacon is the biggest part of the recipe, right?
Kristen: Yeah, for my family, it was actually the first thing I learned how to cook when I was little. Because it's something that's easy enough for a little kid to be able to do. You just lay out bacon, smear some Dijon mustard and brown sugar sprinkled over the top, and roll up a water chestnut in each. And to this day, water chestnuts are like my favorite part of anything they show up in, because of that recipe. I forgot that I made that for your family. But your family was so generous and gave me a little corner with a cot while everyone else was [crowded together].
(Anita and Kristen laugh)
Kristen: I actually had my own room!
Anita: You’re so lucky.
Kristen: I was super lucky. I had my own room with a cot.
Anita: That is unheard of, your own room. Wow. Well, I think they were just so grateful because appetizers are not a thing.
Anita: For us, like that was just so courteous and caring of you. Because the general attitude of my family Thanksgiving is to get out of the kitchen. Don't put your fingers in any of the dishes. You have to starve yourself, and then everyone sits down and eats like there's no tomorrow. It's actually really unhealthy. But I know in the past there have been controversies about people sneaking out to go to McDonald's or just something really awful like that. But it's expected that after breakfast nobody eats a morsel until Thanksgiving dinner. It's this weird, sadistic thing that my family has come together to understand. Don't eat anything until we serve [dinner].
Kristen: That must put a lot of pressure on whoever is cooking that there are up to 40 people waiting around for all of the dishes to be ready at once. How do you do that? And also, how have you been veganizing things? Has it been a slow process, I'm going to just do one dish and then the next year, a few more? Or just let me handle all of this [at once]?
Anita: So the first year we did Thanksgiving that I was vegan, my poor mom. She bought a tofurkey and was all excited about it. And I came home and I took one look at it and said “No way.” Then she said, if you want something to eat, you have to make it. And then it evolved to this point where it was like, oh, if we could get Anita to make everything? The general attitude with my family is if it tastes good, and if we don't have to make it, we will go for it. I think as a vegan, I don't feel that kind of compulsion that I have to have a protein or a main dish because part of how I eat is having varied sources of protein. So it's not one main thing, you're getting it from a lot of little things. But in the name of like, comfort and like giving people something exciting, I'll try to sometimes have a vegan main dish. There was one year that my mom, something happened with the turkey and it got burned or the outside got burned and the inside was still raw. I forget what happened, but the turkey kind of became a disaster. That year, I was making these mushroom parcels. I don't know if you remember this, but I had that phyllo dough phase around that time. And because the turkey burned, everyone got like a phyllo pocket, and that was the main [dish]. And I remember my mom was so happy, Oh, you saved Thanksgiving. That’s going a little far, everyone is just hungry. But something like that, that people can cut into and it feels really meaty. That goes a long way.
When I was growing up, we grew. I grew up in Bethesda, Maryland, and we lived with my Colombian grandma, Grandma Ana. And she had a huge garden in her backyard—we had vegetables, we actually even had an apple tree, a pear tree. We had a really small yard, we lived in suburbia. I remember she would go out there with a machete. She brought her machete from Colombia because when you garden in Colombia, you're literally whacking through the forest. So she brought that machete, and I remember growing up in the suburbs of Bethesda, Maryland, and my grandma, my little Colombian dark-skinned grandma, would go out in the backyard and just be swinging with her machete. But she was amazing, she was an alchemist. She could bring any plant back to life. It's taken me a lifetime to have 1/10 of the magic with plants that she did, and I studied plants!. She was amazing.
So she lived with us and she was incredible. And I learned a lot of cooking from both of my Grandmas, but definitely from her. So short story long, my mom never really got to that point of being a big gardener like my grandma. But she did always keep a herb garden and the nice thing about the herbs is that you can't really kill them. So at her house, she has a little herb garden with thyme and rosemary and oregano, and there's even lemon balm. And the nice thing about Thanksgiving is that most of those herbs are really hardy. So by the time Thanksgiving rolls around and most of the other stuff out there is dead, the herbs are still going strong. So whether it's me or I send one of my little cousins out there, they love to go out there and pick stuff. They'll grab some of the rosemary, some of the oregano, some of the thyme. Sometimes they grab things that I'm like, no, I don't know what this is, we're not putting it in the food. I have no idea where you got this. I have to watch out for them.
But the fresh herbs really add a lot, regardless of whether the dishes are vegan or not, it's nice to have that. And if you don't have a garden, pick up a few bunches of herbs from the store and just have them in the kitchen while you prep your Thanksgiving, you can just grab whatever feels right to you. That helps everyone feel that Thanksgiving feel. We have the pumpkin spice for the desserts that when you smell that you think of this season and you think of Thanksgiving, I think the same goes for those savory herbs that like if you're making stuffing, whether it's full of turkey or Parmesan or whatever or not if you can have a little bit of sage and a little bit of thyme in there. And the celery, everyone smells that and they think of Thanksgiving.
Kristen: Yeah, celery feels like an essential ingredient for stuffing to me, too. It was in my Grandmother's stuffing. A bunch of celery, a bunch of chopped raw onions, and then she uses something called poultry seasoning, which I think is basically just a lot of dried sage and some of those other herbs.
Anita: It's actually vegan, poultry seasoning, and it's also delicious on popcorn, yes.
Kristen: Do you use that?
Anita: Yes, poultry seasoning on popcorn. Trader Joe's has something called Chicken-Less Seasoning. That's what we use on our popcorn, but like any poultry seasoning on popcorn? So good.
Kristen: That’s so perfect because those are the distinctive flavors of my Grandmother's stuffing, and I look forward to them every year. When I could be having them on popcorn.
Anita: Right, it’s so much easier than cooking a turkey all day. We should just end the podcast there. Just make a bowl of popcorn, poultry seasoning, make a cocktail, done.
Kristen: That is 2020 Thanksgiving, in a nutshell.
Kristen: (voiceover) This is The Genius Recipe Tapes. We'll be right back.
Kristen: How did your baking business turn into Anita's yogurt, and how is it going now?
Anita:* Yes, so before I had my yogurt business, I was a baker. I had a baking business, which started out baking muffins in my apartment and delivering them to local cafes in the morning. And it just kind of blossomed from there. The baking from home led to baking in a commercial kitchen, which led to baking in restaurants and being a pastry chef in restaurants. As the jobs got more sophisticated, the demands got more sophisticated. I was at the point where I wanted to make desserts that are not often replicated in a vegan way because of the limitations of the ingredient. And I knew if I could find a good yogurt alternative, I could make the classic cheesecake recipe that I loved or the classic pound cake recipe that I loved. There were just so many desserts that I wanted to make that I couldn't make without yogurt. At the time I was searching high and low at a lot of the New York health food stores. Like Commodities on First Avenue had everything new and exciting. And no matter where I went, I couldn't find anything that worked as a yogurt alternative.
At the time, I was the pastry chef at a restaurant where Neal Harden, who is the chef at ABC V, was the executive chef. He gave me a packet of yogurt cultures and said, you should try making your own, it's actually not that hard. Which was a lie, but it's okay because he got me started. So I took the cultures home and I started experimenting, and it was really exciting to me. Because as you know, baking is really messy and it's really expensive and it's really complicated. I would just destroy the kitchen and I needed so much equipment, and I needed so many ingredients. And the first time I made yogurt, I literally just took coconut milk and dumped it in a pan and warmed it up and put in the cultures, and left it in the kitchen. And the next day, it had become something else and something so different from what I had started out from. It was just so mind-boggling to me. I was like, where's the mess? Where are all of the complicated processes and equipment? It was alchemy. So I kind of became obsessed with making yogurt.
And once I started using it in the desserts, I had a need to make it over and over because I always needed yogurt to put in the dishes. So I had an excuse to keep tinkering around with the recipe, and it did become an obsession. I played around with different brands of coconut milk. I think in the beginning, I toyed around with different kinds of non-dairy milk, but coconut is what I always came back to. So once I committed to that, it was about different fat percentages and different manufacturers. And there's a million and one combinations of time and temperature and every other variable you can think of. And then you throw the fact that you're fermenting something, and it can get contaminated very easily, into the equation. All of a sudden you have all these other things to worry about. It’s something you can play around with endlessly and mess up endlessly on. And it just started there.
Although I was using it in the restaurant and people did enjoy the desserts, that felt like it was going nowhere, working as a vegan pastry chef in New York. I think there was only so far for me to go in terms of earning income and making a name for myself. And I had a lot of friends and food who were finding success in launching a product, and I just made this decision like Anita, you have to commit to one thing and stick to that one thing and make yourself known for one product. And it's probably going to be this yogurt. That's when I ditched the whole baking thing and just started to focus solely on the yogurt. In the beginning, when I launched Anita's Yogurt in stores, I was still guerrilla-style, making it at home in my own kitchen because I couldn't afford to use a commissary kitchen. So I would say for like the first four or five months of my business, the same way I was this underground bakery. I was doing the same thing. And I honestly think if I hadn't done that, I never would have been able to launch my product. And seven years later, here we are. It's a huge category. I have a lot of competitors and the products now, they don't start that way anymore. These products now come from multimillion-dollar companies. They come from startups that have millions of dollars in venture capital. Honestly, there's no way I would be able to get my foot in the door if I was a competitor coming into the market now. I never would, I wouldn't want to enter a saturated category. But it was a moment in time that has come and gone and things are so different now. To look back and think about starting my company that way, to where I am today, as a woman of color with the product in the case of Whole Foods, where most of my competitors are these multimillion-dollar companies. It just really blows my mind.
Kristen: You were the first. You showed everyone what yogurt could be if it didn't have anything but coconut and cultures in it.
Anita: Yeah, at the time it was really unheard of, and I had spoken with a lot of experts in yogurt and cultured dairy. They all told me that what I was trying to do was not possible. They said there's a standard way that it's done in non-dairy, where you take sugar and you take some base and then you add your thickening agent. You add your outside thickening agent. In those days it was guar gum and stuff like that. But these days it's cassava slash tapioca slash maltodextrin. Or its agar, or it's pectin. There are different ways that people package it, but that's what they're using to thicken the product. And at the time, I was really committed to this idea of If I'm going vegan to have something that is pure, and I want that level of quality, I'm not going to replace a product that has two ingredients, which is cow's milk and live cultures, with a substitute that has five ingredients.
Kristen: I have watched you over all the years since you started your business, keep fighting for that to not change. Even as everything changed around you and continues to change around you. you've never been really interested in compromising even a little bit. So you recently wrote a story for us on Food52 to about what has been like since the pandemic hit and all the challenges that you've been thrown this year with running your business and the way people shop for groceries changing and also, of course, having to take care of and homeschool your daughter. So can you tell us a little bit about what's going on now with the business?
Anita: Yes! So one of my big goals was to try to connect with other working parents. And if they read it, to feel like they weren't alone. And that there's a light at the end of the tunnel. Because I have to be honest, there were a lot of moments this past year where I was struggling to see a light at the end of the tunnel. I was just in such a deep hole financially. Our sales had been tanking. We were in the middle of the pandemic in New York. People couldn't really get to the store. And if you did go to the store, you had to wait in the cold, in a line that snaked around the block. In general, anytime you went out into the world, you had to face this hostility. We had to keep our distance from each other, everyone was scared of each other. And you would go to the store and there were so many rules. In the story, I opened the story talking about getting off the plane without a mask. When I landed back in New York City in March, I was like, what's going on? Are these people germaphobes? What's happening? But eventually it became clear that wearing a mask was an effective way to stop spreading the virus. But there was a couple weeks where I remember people who were back and forth—are we supposed to wear a mask? Are we not? Are we supposed to wear gloves?
Then when things really set in, we had a little bit of a grocery spike right when everyone was kind of settling down to hunker down for the Pandemic. And after that, everything tanked. And I've been running my business week to week. But fortunately, through retail sales bouncing back, through getting the community to rally around local products, around small businesses, around entrepreneurs of color. And also launching e-commerce, fortunately, my business is back. Things are happening again, and on the home side, Ramona is back in school again. So that has been a saving grace for me. Without that program, we would still be in a tough place with me trying to juggle schooling, child care, and business at the same time. It was intense for most of the year, to say the least.
Kristen: This was really great and it was so great to hear your voice, so great to hear your stories.
Anita: Thank you.
Kristen: I will talk to you very soon.
Anita: Thank you so much. Kristen.
Kristen: (voiceover) Thanks for listening. Our show was put together by Coral Lee, Emily Hanhan, and me, Kristen Miglore. What are you cooking this Thanksgiving? If you stumble on something Genius, I would love to hear about it at email@example.com. If you like The Genius Recipe Tapes, be sure to rate and review us. It really helps. See you next time.
Anita: Oh, I thought of a better reality show analogy—where you think you're going to like your wedding cake tasting, but you're actually going to your wedding. You know those horrible shows? That's what this is.
(Anita and Kristen laugh)