Benjamin Franklin Introduces Soybeans, Tofu to America in 1770
“Tau-fu,” as Benjamin Franklin first referred to it in 1770, is part of America’s heritage and soyfoods continue to be a great way to celebrate our country’s history. Scientist, statesman and epicurean, Franklin introduced many foods to America, including tofu.
Franklin, who discovered soy while visiting London, relayed his findings to his long-time friend and fellow horticulturist, John Bartram, a preeminent botanist in Philadelphia whose home on the banks of the Schuylkill River, Bartram’s Gardens, is America’s oldest living botanical garden.
“My ever dear Friend: I send Chinese Garavances. Cheese [is] made of them, in China, which so excited my curiosity. Some runnings of salt (I suppose runnet) is put into water, when the meal is in it, to turn to curds. These are what the Tau-fu is made of.”
The post contained soybean seeds and a recipe for “a kind of cheese made in China from a little bean.”
It was Philadelphia’s City Tavern (138 S. Second St.) proprietor, Chef Walter Staib, the host of four-time Emmy award-winning PBS show “A Taste of History,” who discovered this interesting piece of American history while doing research for the show.
“If it wasn’t for Benjamin Franklin, Americans wouldn’t have found out about tofu until much later,” said Staib on “A Taste of History” as he cooked curried tofu & shrimp at Bartram’s Gardens.
Staib, who says Franklin “stole” the recipe for tofu, referring to it as “early on international espionage,” is surprised by how popular the fried tofu dish is on his menu.
“It’s a big eye opener for people,” who are surprised when they find out there was very little animal protein consumed in the 18th century, he said. “We serve tofu and everyone second guesses us, and then you show them the history and they go, “Wow.”"
City Tavern, still a faithful recreation of an original 18th-century tavern, was the watering hole for Franklin and other Revolutionary figures. Today, Staib serves Franklin’s tofu to honor its place in American culinary history.
In a “60 Minutes” segment that aired last November, author/historian David McCullough and Morley Safer dined at City Tavern, where they sampled the fried tofu, “first introduced here by that early hippie, Ben Franklin,” Safer pronounced. In the segment (transcript), McCullough spoke about the importance of younger generations learning about America’s history.
“I say bring back dinner if you want to improve how children get to know history,” McCullough said.
“It’s amazing how little people know about how food has traveled around the world,” Staib said. “I salute Ben Franklin for inspiring that.”
Throughout East Asia and in some places in the United States, tofu has been the most popular way to serve soybeans. Tofu, also known as soybean curd, is a soft cheese-like food that comes from the coagulated protein in soymilk. The highly versatile tofu is a popular ingredient in food manufacturing and has multiple uses in home cooking. (More information about tofu is available here.)
In the Orient, the art of tofu making requires special beans and special care. The ancient Chinese method begins with washing, soaking and grinding soybeans in water. The resulting slurry is filtered to make soymilk that is heated. A natural mineral coagulant, such as calcium or magnesium salt, turns the soymilk into curds that when pressed release the whey from tofu.
From their cottage industry beginnings to today’s multi-million dollar international companies, soyfoods have come a long way in the past 20 years. Early soyfoods companies in the U.S. were often small, family-run organizations that sold their tofu or soymilk door-to-door to small segments of the population. These days, soyfoods are found throughout the United States in restaurants, supermarkets and even your area pizza parlor and coffee shop. It is amazing the transformations soyfood companies have undergone in this history.
Season five of “A Taste of History” will be released at the end of July. Contact your local PBS station to find listings.
About Soyfoods Association of North America
The Soyfoods Association of North America (SANA) is a non-profit trade association that has been promoting consumption of soyfoods in the diet since 1978. SANA is committed to encouraging sustainability, integrity and growth in the soyfoods industry by promoting the benefits and consumption of soy-based foods and ingredients in diets. More information is available at www.soyfoods.org.
About Chef Walter Staib
Chef Walter Staib is a third generation restaurateur with over 40 years experience. He has been in the kitchen for more than four decades, beginning his culinary career at age four when he was recruited to peel garlic in his uncle’s restaurant and going on to work in Europe’s finest resorts. He is widely decorated with international awards, including the German American of the Year, Knight’s Cross of the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany and Chevalier de l’Ordre du Mérite Agricole de la République Française. This year, Staib also took home his show’s fourth Emmy Award for 2012 Best On Camera Talent Program Host. He is the author of five cookbooks.
About City Tavern
When City Tavern first opened its doors in 1773, Philadelphia was the largest, most cosmopolitan city in British North America. The American colonies were about to throw off the yoke of British rule in what became the most important revolution the world had ever seen. Men Like George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and others whose names have become an integral part of history enjoyed its hospitality. Indeed, John Adams once called it “the most genteel tavern in America.” The recreated tavern now stands in its original place creating the most authentic 18th century dining experience in America, complete with costumed waitstaff and a menu fully based on the cuisine of the 1770s.
About “A Taste of History”
“A Taste of History” is a TV cooking series that explores America’s culinary beginnings from the Birthplace of American Cuisine. This innovative series brings America’s history to life and makes it vibrant as we step back in time and get to know the founders of our country through the food they ate and the recipes they prepared.