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City Lights: Benjamin Franklin: statesman and the bringer of 'Tau-fu'?

May 16, 2012|By Michael Miller
  • Michael Miller's wife Rachanee Srisavasdi stands by the chalkboard outside the City Tavern Restaurant in Philadelphia.
Michael Miller's wife Rachanee Srisavasdi stands… (Michael Miller,…)

A few years ago, I visited the home of the blues and came away with a theory: If God wants to punish vegans, He sends them to Memphis.

I came to that belief after nearly an hour trying to find an animal-free entrée on the posted menus on Beale Street, which made my arteries thicken just by looking at them: double-deep-fried catfish, baby back ribs slathered in bacon, and that sort of thing.

For members of the Merry Meatless, Orange County offers a cornucopia of choices: think of the Bodhi Tree Vegetarian Cafe in Huntington Beach, Au Lac in Fountain Valley and the chains Native Foods and Veggie Grill.

But those menu options get pretty slim elsewhere in the country, which typically means a lot of veggie burgers and spaghetti marinara on trips.

That's about what I expected two weeks ago when my wife and I stopped by the City Tavern Restaurant in Philadelphia. The archaic-looking building is a replica of a favorite social spot of the Founding Fathers, authentic down to the 18th-century clothes worn by the staff. It looked like a great place for atmosphere, not so much for tofu.

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And then I noticed fried tofu advertised on the chalkboard outside the front door. Surely this was a modern-day concession? Well, no, as it turns out.

Under the dish's name on the chalkboard were a few short lines explaining that Benjamin Franklin had introduced tofu to the United States. After devouring my meal, I went home and checked that information online, and according to the Benjamin Franklin Tercentenary, a website created in honor of his 300th birthday, the chalkboard didn't lie.

To quote the site: "The earliest document seen in which an American mentions tofu is a letter written by Benjamin Franklin (who was in London) to John Bartram in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on January 11, 1770.

"He sent Bartram some soybeans (which he called 'Chinese caravances') and with them he sent 'Father Navarrete's account of the universal use of a cheese made of them in China, which so excited my curiosity, that I caused enquiry to be made of Mr. [James] Flint, who lived many years there, in what manner the cheese was made, and I send you his answer.

"I have since learned that some runnings of salt (I suppose runnet) is put into water, when the meal is in it, to turn it to curds. ... [These] are what the Tau-fu is made of.'"

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