South­ern Cul­ture

An Amer­i­can dream that started with yo­gurt in Iran


“Ten years ago, I didn’t know what a col­lard green was,” says Fred Raz­za­ghi from be­hind the counter at Fred’s Coun­try Kitchen in down­town At­lanta. Con­struc­tion work­ers and court­house lawyers are eat­ing el­bow to el­bow, their lunch plat­ters loaded up with fried chicken and col­lards, smoked wings and hoe­cakes. It’s a local’s place, where a meat-and-three plate will run you less than six bucks. But there is an­other item on Fred’s menu that his most dis­cern­ing cus­tomers are sure not to miss: a bowl of his home­made yo­gurt.

Topped with honey, ginger, chopped straw­ber­ries, and crushed wal­nuts, Fred’s yo­gurt is tangy and rich, but it isn’t Greek. It was born in Mianeh, an an­cient, ru­ral town in north­east­ern Iran where Farhad Raz­za­ghi— Fred’s given name—is from. Grow­ing up in the 1960s, his fam­ily lived near a mar­ket where crafts­men plied the old trades, black­smiths and shoe cob­blers work­ing among the gro­cers. Farhad’s first job was work­ing for a neigh­bor named Khalil, who would make yo­gurt from sheep’s milk pur­chased from farm­ers in the nearby hills.

“His ther­mome­ter was his hand,” Fred says. Khalil taught him to make yo­gurt by the feel of the pot: how long to boil, how long to rest, when to in­su­late the pots by wrap­ping them with thick blan­kets. In win­ter, it would only take a cou­ple of hours be­fore the milk was cool enough to stir in the cul­tures. In sum­mer, it could take as many as six. Fred stud­ied Khalil’s ges­tures, com­mit­ting the prac­tice to mem­ory. Even when he went on to be­come a phys­i­cal ther­a­pist in Tehran, he con­tin­ued to make the dish that most re­minded him of his child­hood.

Fearing that his chil­dren wouldn’t have the right op­por­tu­ni­ties in Iran fol­low­ing the revo­lu­tion, Fred fol­lowed his brother-in-law who had fled to At­lanta. With a wife, two kids, a green card, and very lit­tle English, Fred’s tran­si­tion to Amer­ica was tough. His brother-in-law gave him a job at the Ital­ian res­tau­rant he’d opened. “And so, at age 43, I be­came bus­boy Fred,” he says, re­call­ing the strange­ness of start­ing over with a new life, a new name.

A decade later, he had saved up enough money to buy a tiny sand­wich shop on an un­pol­ished block down­town. The res­tau­rant strug­gled and al­most closed. Ar­lena Bar­ber, a cashier he’d hired who had worked in the neigh­bor­hood for more than two decades, sug­gested he try serv­ing South­ern food.

“Miss Ar­lena told me to get col­lard greens and turkey wings and turn this place around,” Fred says. Learn­ing the ways of the meat-and-three was a group ef­fort, in­volv­ing ev­ery­one from Ar­lena to a cook hired off the side­walk, but even­tu­ally Fred mas­tered the finer points of col­lards and pot­likker, how to slow smoke pork ribs for hours.

Fred never planned to put his yo­gurt on the menu. He’d been mak­ing it in the back for him­self for years be­fore a friend sug­gested he try sell­ing it. If you ask to see how he makes it, Fred will re­ply, “You can­not see. You can only wait.”

In the still quiet of the res­tau­rant in the early morn­ing, with his hand to the pot, you may catch a glimpse of the lengths Fred has trav­eled. He says it doesn’t quite taste as it did back in Iran, when the milk came fresh from sheep graz­ing on the dis­tant hills, but even so, it still tastes of home. The milk fi­nally cool, he’ll gen­tly stir in the cul­tures and re­mind you, “Yo­gurt can­not be made in a day.”

Fred’s yo­gurt is tangy and rich, but it isn’t Greek. It was born in Mianeh, an an­cient town in Iran.

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