Genealogy of Lunch: On the Tofu Trail

Mark Amerika

Lately, there's been so much "alternative" culture to
digest, so much information to swallow, so many crazed
projects to chew on, there's been almost no time to really
consider what it is I've been eating. I have a few strict
rules that I go by, which is to say I follow your basic
vegetarian diet with an emphasis on easy-to-prepare rice-
burgers and not-dogs. Recently, I've been so busy meeting
deadlines that when I look up at the clock, I notice that
it's almost mid-afternoon and that I haven't had a bite to
eat all day. Maybe it's psychological, but I immediately
realize that my head is starting to spin, my blood is
playing a bad hallucinatory joke on me, and I need to take
care of myself ASAP lest I pass out on the keyboard with
drivel oozing out of my mouth and heading toward the modem.
So, what do I do?

Well, I unceremoniously run to the kitchen and wolf
down everything in sight as fast as I can: cold spaghetti,
cheese crackers, sunflower seeds, chocolate cookies, fruit,
cold coffee, chips, a few pieces of the time I
walk back to the workstation I'm holding onto a sore
stomach and a nagging need to restructure my eating habits.

So I decided to try something different, something
that would better connect me with my brand new program to
eat good food periodically throughout the day. Not only
would I pay more attention to the food I ate and how fast I
ate it, I would track down the meaning of my food, try to
get a more knowledgeable understanding of where it comes
from, what kind of work goes into the development of the
very fuel that feeds my body.

I decided to look into the "genealogical" background
of my favorite lunch at the Creative Cafe, one of the
hipper restaurants here in Californicated Boulder. The
Creative Cafe has been around for awhile now, starting off
as the Creative Bakery, and at first I thought I would just
look into the lineage of the fine grain that composed their
wonderful breads that have names like Tahini-Herb and Black
Bean-Sunflower. But I decided against it because the
Creative Cafe has developed a national reputation for
making the best barbecued tofu this side of the Mekong
Delta and since I was now going to take my sweet time
eating my more regularly-scheduled meals, it seemed to make
perfect sense that I would try and investigate the origins
of this unusual dish that even my visiting family of
voracious carnivores couldn't help but slurp up like it was
Southern fried chicken.

The first thing I did was ask the chef and co-owner of
the Creative Cafe, Liz Cruickshank, where she got the tofu.

"All of our tofu comes from White Wave. It's
delivered weekly but by the end of the month we've ended up
ordering over a ton."

A ton of tofu? Visions of vats of tofu, huge
cesspools of curdling soybean mash, crossed my mind. For a
moment, I was drowning in it.

"Okay," I asked her, ready to slip in the question
that's been most on my mind ever since first sampling the
barbecued delicacy: "How do you make this delicious stuff

"I can't tell you," she said and I immediately sensed
that she was suspicious. After all, it wouldn't be so out
of the ordinary for some crackpot writer who calls himself
Mark Amerika to call them up first thing in the morning as
they're pulling the soyflakes from their eyes and pretend
he's writing a story for a national magazine just so that
he can get the secret recipe for his own damn self.

"Besides," said Liz, "I don't want the whole world
knowing about it. I can tell you that it's not deep-
fried. It's very labor intensive, a process of re-
dehydrating---you know, tofu is 60% water?"

Come to think of it, it always did seem a bit wet. It
ends up that the water composition of Tofu's Body is very
similar to that of a human body or the surface of the
earth. A good sign for those of us on the tofu trail.

Liz Cruickshank's co-owning partner at Creative Cafe,
Charles Blair, added his own thoughts on the subject by
telling me that "America has just voted tofu the single
most disgusting food in the world."

"Which is understandable," he continued, "but of
course they've never had our tofu. We get your typical
Northeasterner in here, some college student who brings in
Mom and Pop from New York City, and they order the
barbecued tofu and once they taste it they say something
like 'Oy, I don't believe it! It tastes just like
'," and it does, it does.

White Wave, the makers of that Creative Cafe b-b-q tofu,
just happen to be located here in east Boulder. When one
looks at all the different soy products they have out in
the market, it seems like they can do anything with
soybeans, turning them into Korean-styled tempeh (which is
fermented soybean cake that looks and smells spoiled upon
purchase), soy cheese (how about low-fat jalapeno jack?),
soy-yogurt (it still has active cultures like acidopholous
for all those yeast infections), something called healthy
franks (which are made mostly from wheat gluten to keep
down the fat content) and many other seemingly ersatz
products made from the essential bean.

Only the ersatz quality of the food is real. That is
to say, what you're eating when you load up a fake hot-dog
with ketchup, mustard, relish, and raw onion all on a warm
bun is no longer a fake hot-dog. It is a real hot dog
without the ground up pig ears in it. Which relieves me to
no end because I always thought that I'd die from hot-dog
poisoning or that one day I'd bite into a Coney Island
special and feel the sharp incision of shrapnel tear my
inner mouth to shreds. I mean what is actually in an Oscar
Meyer weiner? Pig weiners, no doubt. And testicles too.
And what about that outer skin they stuff all those pig
parts into? What is it made of? Nylon? Rayon? Gore-Tex?
We wouldn't want the meat to get wet now, would we?!

Something that occurs to me as I further investigate
where my food comes from is that a lot of my tastes in food
are the result of some weird combination of nostalgia and
repetition. Which is another way of saying that most of my
food tastes are acquired. So that when I eat a tempeh-
burger on a warm sesame seed bun with a wide variety of
scrumptious condiments oozing out from all ends, what I'm
really enjoying is the feeling I had as a kid who used to
be rewarded for his good behavior with a trip to Wendy's or
McDeath. I'm enjoying biting into a thick, rounded thing
that I can hold in my two hands so that as I chomp into the
meaty-substance (it could be raw tire rubber for all I
care, as long as it's texturalized) with all of its spicy-
wet seasonings, I'm re-living an experience that grounds me
in my basic day-to-day survival skills, skills that are so
automatic and second nature that I often forget to even
take advantage of them.

This Repetitive Eating Motion, or masticating the food
product that somehow makes its way into my hungry face, has
nothing to do with meat or craving ground up moo-moo cow-
cow. Rather, it's the feeling of consummating a desire
I've continuously had ever since I sucked on mom's boob (or
that dreaded formula-bottle, as the case may be).

I asked someone in the production facility at the
reconverted meat warehouse in Boulder where White Wave is
located, where they got their soybeans from.

"Oh, I can't tell you that, not the media," she said.
Her name was Marcie.

Well, first I was unable to get the recipe for b-b-q
tofu due to the secrecy of the chef. That was
understandable. But to be accused of being the media!
This was new to me. I guess anyone who snoops around
asking questions about the inner workings of a successful
operation is bound to be scrutinized. Still, I persisted a
bit more to find out the origin of White Wave soybeans, but
Marcie wouldn't budge. So I took a different tact and
asked her if she could briefly explain the process of
making tofu. Here she was a little more open:

"Uhm, it's a very long, drawn out process," she said
and it reminded me of Liz, our chef at the restaurant who
also felt it was important to tell me about the labor-
intensity of preparing my entree.

Marcie gave me the formula for making tofu which goes
like this: first, you soak the soybeans, then you grind
them until you get a kind of soy milk, then you add nigari
which helps turn the milk into curds and whey which you
then pour into a press box so as to squeeze all the whey
out of the mixture. It then gets put into a huge box where
air pressure is applied to make solid blocks of tofu which
then get cut up into nice packagable sizes to be sent out
to supermarkets all around the country (White Wave is one
of the biggest tofu makers/distributors in the country).

"We make about 1400 pounds a day," she said.

"Now," I continued, "about the soybeans..."

"You'll have to talk to the President," she said but,
as I soon found out, the President of White Wave, she
called him Steve, was out of town with most of the other
big-wigs at White Wave doing a trade show.

"You could ask Pam in our purchasing department," she
said and so I called Pam.

"Well, we'll have to wait until Steve comes back in
the office on Monday."

"Okay," I said, resolute, "but what can you tell me?
I mean it must come from the American Midwest, right? Or
is it from out of the country?"

"Oh, it comes from the Midwest, of course. I can tell
you we get it from a grain elevator. The grain elevator
gets their product from many different farmers. I'm not
sure they'll tell you what farmers they use."

The level of secrecy built around this story is the
real story. I keep thinking that part of the problem here
is that we live in a society where big business is the most
important aspect of our complex lives and the law is
especially set up to accommodate the free-wheeling world of
competition and that I am being seen as a potential threat,
a competitor, someone posing as a reporter who wanted to
obtain crucial information that would enable me to screw
the other person over. Was I being paranoid or was the
secrecy factor just opening my eyes to the day-to-day
realities of commerce in America whether that commerce be
in tofu or pork-bellies?

Information-sharing, that's what investigative
reporting is about. Would President Steve tell me where he
got his soybeans from? I had to wait until Monday.

President Steve at White Wave was not willing to discuss
this sensitive material with me. After some serious
consideration of the positives and the negatives, it was
decided that I wasn't important enough or useful enough for
the Soybean Revolution. After all, what were my
credentials? I could be affiliated with the Cattlemen of
America Association or a spy for the Organic Foods
Certification Board (most of the White Wave tofu in
supermarkets claims on its packaging to be organic).

All I had to go on was that it came from a grain
elevator somewhere in the Midwest. Do you have any idea
how many grain elevators are in business in the American
Midwest? Chicago has an entire commodities exchange board
to help market the huge amounts of soybean grown in the
American Midwest. In fact, the United States is the
biggest producer of soybeans in the world (although Brazil
and Argentina are trying hard to surpass us).

But this wasn't always the case. Soybeans were first
cultivated in China, Manchuria and other neighboring
countries in Asia. It wasn't until the early 1800's that
they made their way over here although they didn't really
catch on until the early 1900's where they started seeing
rapid growth as one of our leading cash crops. The big
news for soybeans was that they could be crushed into what
would eventually become the most edible oil on the market.
There are some people who still think that if we really
tried, we could run our cars and boats and airplanes on
them and save the planet all at the same time.

It was too late to turn back and try to trace, say,
the pasta I ate for dinner the night before my tofu lunch
and besides, wouldn't all of America's successful
businessmen and women keep their trade secrets to
themselves? Wasn't I being kind of aggressive trying to
get them all to release to me information that would put
their business practices and networking skills out into
the very public eye? Especially the ever-popular SPEC eye,
that demographic reader who pays $3.95 a copy so that they
can then go out and take over the entire soybean market?
C'mon! You'd have to be crazy!

But still, I needed more info. Info junky is what I
am. What I'll always be. It's the fuel that feeds that
Central Processing Unit in the back of my skull. I like it
better than food. So I put out an all-points-bulletin on a
number of Internet groups and finally heard from a person
who only identified themselves as "Mr. Rotten Potato-Head"
and claimed to be an employee of the U.S. Department of
Agriculture. I asked my new source to tell me something
about soybeans, how many are grown, where are they grown,
anything to give me an idea about where my lunch came from.

According to my anonymous source, "soybeans are the
second highest valued crop in America after corn. Over 2
billion bushels of soybeans are produced a year, mostly in
what is called the Corn Belt. Over 500,000 farms harvest
soybeans so it would be quite a feat for you to try and
figure out just what farms your barbecued tofu came from."

I asked him to give me an idea of how my soybeans
would be stored.

"Well, there are farmers who store the beans on the
farm, but they have to watch out that they don't lose a lot
of the crop to rodents, insects, shrinkage or spoilage.
Your beans probably came from a county elevator. County
elevator operators gotta watch out that the moisture level
doesn't get too high or else you'll get a lot of spoilage
that way. So what they do is aerate the beans, you know,
force-feed them dry air via monster fan units."

Assuming that the weather holds up and we don't see
any more dustbowl years, then those same elevator-stored
beans get put on big trucks who then ship them to budding
entrepreneurs like President Steve so that he can quietly
lead the Soybean Revolution to its profit-laden victory
(can you imagine some big old trucker pulling off of I-80,
slamming through the gates of the Do-Drop-Dead Diner and
saying "Hey, Maggie, gimme a tofu-burger!").

The saddest thing "Mr. Rotten Potato-Head" told me was
that the vast majority of the soybeans grown in America
today are used for high-protein meal to feed chickens, cows
and yep, porky pigs. Of course, this got me to thinking:
if all of these bored livestock are content doing the non-
stop chow-chow on this abundant, mashed up, vegie stuff,
why can't we hominids eat more of that and less of
them? The answer is simple: it's food politics.

We're taught from grade school about the so-called four
basic food groups: meat, dairy, sliced meat, and ground
beef. When the Physicians for Social Responsibility
recently attempted to turn the food groups on their head
and put grains, vegetables, fruits and beans at the top of
a new hierarchical system, the FDA balked at its
suggestion. They balked because of the top-dollar lobbying
efforts of the Meat Industry and the Dairy Council, the
same folks who go to the school districts to make sure
their interests are served, preferably in the school

And now comes the latest news, that is, the
government's approval of bovine growth-hormone injections
to assure us even more productive cows whose overworked
udders can discharge the kind of milk our arteries just
love to clog up with. And as if that weren't enough, now
we have studies that show us that children who eat meat or
drink milk from cows shot up with growth-hormones are
prematurely developing their sexuality. Would you believe
four-and-a-half year old girls with fully developed
breasts? I'm not kidding. Read John Robbin's _Diet For
A New America_ and find out what other kinds of monsters
our Big Science Engine is creating.

Meanwhile, I'm going to savor this plate of barbecued
tofu. Sure, I don't know exactly where it came from, but
I'm taking my time eating it and feel myself getting more
full every second.

Amerika Online