Tofu: Thirty- Years Ago
I made the decision to become a vegetarian in my late teens. Although having subconsciously flirted with the idea all my life, the idea finally stuck after a visit to a cattle/pig farm in Alabama. I will spare you the details.
Do you have any idea what it was like in the ’70s to be a vegetarian and not live on a commune somewhere? There were no salad bars, no “Have it your Way” burger options and very few vegetarian restaurants. God forbid someone found out you didn’t, you know … EAT MEAT! Social life came hard in those days.
At that time, I was working for a jeweler at a mall in the metro Atlanta area when I heard of something that really piqued my interest. A local television news station was taping a segment of their broadcast, “What’s Bugging You?” at the mall that day. As an adventuress, I asked if I could air a grievance on the show. The cameraman was quite obliging, and told me what time to be there for the taping.
I marched myself right up to the podium and stood in front of the camera without a moment’s hesitation. A crowd of people huddled around, the lights were fixed and ready, the cameraman pointed at me, and I began my dissertation: “What’s bugging me is that I live in the biggest city in the South, and unless I visit the two existing vegetarian restaurants in Atlanta, I’m out of luck for a vegetarian meal. I can’t tell you how many times I have gone into a non-vegetarian restaurant and requested a meal without beef or chicken, and the servers just look at me as if I had lost my mind. Why can’t all restaurants offer vegetarian items on their menus?”
Well, I thought I was going to be the Norma Rae who spoke on the behalf of the vegetarian masses. My fellow vegetarians would be thankful; alas, not quite. As I stepped off the podium, there was a mixture of applause, laughter, disbelief, cheers, and I think I caught the cameraman off guard because he looked very surprised! Maybe he was a vegetarian; probably not. Nevertheless, I made the cut and was on the local news that evening.
I would like to say “thank goodness” for all the Health Food Stores! How would we have ever made it without you? You were truly the pivotal element which launched our local grocery stores into zeroing-in on our needs. I don’t know why, but it seems to me that Tofu has always been treated like the slightly eccentric relative whom no one speaks of openly. You know the one who is known to take a little “nip” in the closet every now and then. Face it- tofu just gets a bad rap.
Thankfully, one or two local grocery stores carried tofu back then, but they seemed quite secretive about it. It was always located way in the back of the store- in the corner- in the dark, and much of the time the product had gone past its expiration date. If I asked anyone where the tofu was, it was like I had suddenly spoken Martian or something. Well, somebody had to know what it was, didn’t they? Who placed the order for it? Fess up!
After many years of going through the checkout with tofu on board, I have been asked about tofu so many times that I’ve lost count. Can you believe I used to get embarrassed when the cashier would ask me, “What is that?” Heaven help me if the price was not on the package or listed on the product code data sheet.
I want to share with you just one of the many embarrassing “tofu moments” I have encountered over the years. More often than not, the tofu would not have a price on it, or for some reason, it wouldn’t register when passed over the scanner. Let me tell you something-you have not lived until “Herb,” grabs the tofu up, sprint across the store carrying the tofu like a football cradled in his big bulky arm, on a quest to get a price check. He stopped halfway across the store, held the tofu up in the air, and yelled at the top of his lungs, “Where did you get this stuff? What did you say this is?”
“Tofu,” I murmured.
“What- fu?” He said, scratching his head.
I am red faced as all-get-out by now, as the cashier yelled back to him, “IT’S TOFU, HERB! To-fu! Look in the produce section!” She looked at me and began to speak in a tone, which almost seemed to be a soft-spoken confession, “I have an aunt who used to be a hippie and she ate that stuff. Mom says she was always a little weird. I think she lives in Oregon or someplace like that now.”
Well, the store became deafeningly silent, and the orange flashing light over the cash register started twirling around like a beacon in a lighthouse, summoning lost ships at sea, and Herb was the ship-lost in the foreboding dark corner of Tofu World! I felt myself starting to break out into a cold sweat. Meanwhile, my husband sighed heavily, and started drumming his fingers on the magazine rack next to him, and muttered something like “Why do we always get stuck in the wrong line?” The people in line behind us had grown mildly curious as they started craning their necks, taking inventory of the items in our grocery cart.
Finally, Herb made it back with the price check. “Man! I didn’t think I was ever gonna find it. I’ve never noticed this stuff before. What is it,” he asked, as he poked his finger at it like it was some kind of science project.
“Give me that!” I said under my breath, reaching for the tub of tofu.
You know, in retrospect, those days were fun. Even though my family thought I had completely taken leave of my senses, it was still fun. Even when I would go to lunch with my co-workers and stand in line to order a burger without the meat, only to watch them scatter in different directions, it was fun. I know this has happened to you as well. How many times have you requested “Please . . . look . . . all I want you to do is just make me a burger, minus the beef. Just put the lettuce on the bun with tomato, onions and cheese. I’m willing to pay the full price for the whole thing- just sling the beef! I’ll even come back there and make it myself.”
Simple, huh? I wish I had a dollar for every time I heard that squeaky, whiney voice say— “WE CAN’T DO THAT!”
Fast forward thirty-years and we are now living in Veg-Heaven. I knew someday it would be this way if we hung in there and ate enough tofu. You can find tofu everywhere now: on cooking shows, in every grocery store (up front and center, I tell ya), fast food restaurants, swanky restaurants, not so swanky restaurants, convenience stores, road-side stands; it’s everywhere. There is even a little restaurant in Chamblee, GA called “The Tofu House.” How cool is that? Do I tell my friends and family, “See, I told you so?” Absolutely! Are they now eating tofu? No. Sigh.
However, more people than ever have started to take notice of this little white cake in the squishy tub because the nutritional benefits outweigh any reservations they may have had about it. Tofu comes in many different forms these days. We didn’t want to eat hamburgers, so someone came up with a way to make a soy burger, hotdogs/ soy dogs, smoked ribs/soy ribs, Italian sausage/soy sausage, etc. It’s the greatest thing that could have ever happened to the mighty soy bean.
Yes,thirty-years ago it was nearly impossible to find tofu anywhere and every now and then, depending on how rural an area I happen to visit, it can still be a challenge, and I will suffer a “Son of Herb” moment, but that just makes life a little more interesting.
Acknowledgment: I would like to thank Burger King for being the pioneer and living up to its promise that you could, and still can, “Have it your way.” No other fast food chain in late 1970 or into the ’80s, allowed you to ask, “I’d like a whopper; just sling the beef!” Thank you for that convenience.
Betsy Bearden is a certified and published writer, and the author of a self-published cookbook, Normal People Eat Tofu, Too. She has worked as a volunteer chef, and cooking class instructor at Kroger’s School of Cooking in Alpharetta, Georgia, and as a reporter for The Paulding Neighbor Newspaper. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit her website at www.creativewrites.net