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August 30, 2006

In Defense of Tofu

Ah, the vegetarian paradox.  It's an odd state of affairs.  Being the guy who snacks on soy, my fellow bread breakers seem routinely fearful that I'll mention the horrific conditions at the overcrowded feedlot their burger came from.  Oddly, little interests me less than talking food politics over, you know, food.  And yet, I get no end of flack for the tofu on my plate.  You'd think I were cutting into a heaping pile of fly-infested cow shit for all the raised eyebrows and snide asides I get.  A few things:

  • I like tofu.  Really, I do.  I didn't order it as an implicit rebuke for your burger, or a way of karmically balancing our bill.  I just like tofu.  It soaks up flavor, is low in fat (so I don't get food comas), and is invariably cheaper.  Generous as The American Prospect is, that matters.
  • I really like cooking tofu.  Much more so than meat.  It's clean to handle, doesn't require I scrub my hands in scalding water, and ensures that my inattention and inexperience won't make either of us sick.  And, again, it's cheaper, even more so for home use than restaurant consumption.  Plus, I make it really, really well.  If you're judging my cooking, my comparative advantage almost certainly lies in my skill with soy.  I'd be a fool not to display it.
  • What's up with the gender politics over dinner?  I don't get my masculinity from my plate, I get it by driving my enemies before me, and hearing the lamentations of their women.  Do girls get a lot of shit for eating vegetarian?  Or is it just us Y chromosomes who people look at like we're slapping on lilac aftershave?
  • I'm not judging you.  If you think I am, you probably just feel bad about eating meat, and should better reconcile yourself to your culinary choices.  The percentage of items on my plate that survived through photosynthesis really has no bearing on the morality of steak.
  • Everyone, no matter what they eat, should read Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma.

August 30, 2006 | Permalink


Do girls get a lot of shit for eating vegetarian?

Well, up to a point, but the two broad assumptions regarding vegetarianism are that a) it's a weight control/health thing, and b) that it's a sentimental choice for those who can't bear to hurt animals, both ideas that are given a bit more respect lip service when held by women.

I'm a mostly-unapologetic meat eater whose grandfathers both raised animals for food (one had cattle, the other had pigs & chickens), although I'm slowly switching to mostly organic animal products because of both better quality & more humane farming practices. Never have taken to tofu, unless it's ground or in an ice-cream-type product, because I've been offered what seems to be grilled nonskid tub mats at too many parties over the years. I usually get along okay with non-meat eaters, although I have to admit that I do get the impression that some have extremely delicate sensibilities and/or are pretty picky... people who appear to have robust appetites are usually perceived as being more fun, anyway, health and body image issues aside.

I don't think it's that big a deal outside of intimate relationships-- I've had worse fights with fellow omnivores over foods like mushrooms or rice, to be honest.

Posted by: latts | Aug 30, 2006 5:55:30 PM

I think dealing with the preachy teenage vegetarian (who may or may not have later relented) was the first experience most people had with vegetarianism, and it colors their opinion of it to a large degree - particularly if they don't encounter other, non-preachy vegetarians later in life.

My attitude (I'm an omnivore, BTW) is - eat what you want. You don't like meat, don't eat it. I had several non-preachy vegeterian friends in high school who simply didn't like meat, and I was nearly alone in not giving them crap about it. I was also not fazed when one of them occaisionally gave in to a hankering for chicken.

Posted by: Kylroy | Aug 30, 2006 5:55:57 PM

A vegetarian could not be elected president. I'm serious. It's an issue waiting to happen, tofu gate, cause everyone knows that men who don't eat meat like to have sex with other men.

Posted by: david mizner | Aug 30, 2006 5:56:35 PM

I guess I sympathize a little, but only a little. C'mon, say "I think it's tasty" and move on. Then again, I have eaten insects on more than one occasion, at least once at a restaurant. Perhaps I have funny ideas about keeping the courage of your food convictions.

If you want to eat insects, I can recommend the sea worms at Typhoon, the otherwise-unexemplary Asian fusion place at the Santa Monica airport.


FD: I eat meat. I have eaten fish and even a couple mammals I or my relatives or friends killed; I would do the same again. Eating organic is a nice way to make sure your beef comes from a cow whose life was less unpleasant, mind you.

Posted by: wcw | Aug 30, 2006 6:01:17 PM

I think part of the bias against tofu is that a lot of what was available was so bad for so long. Freshness and quality matter with tofu, just like with any other perishable food. Even with a good sauce, old tofu can be pretty lousy. Freshly made Korean soontofu stew though, is one of the best dishes ever.

Posted by: MattT | Aug 30, 2006 6:06:48 PM

Most excellent Conan (NOT O'Brien)/Milius reference!

For another interesting perspective on the gender (and class) politics of lunch (granted, it's in the SF Bay Area), check this out.

Posted by: The Confidence Man | Aug 30, 2006 6:07:21 PM

Its always funny to me how the sterotype of the Fascist Vegan persists...."I don't mind how people eat I guess....but do they have to tell ME how to eat???" I live in the Bay Area, so I have encountered a few of these vegans....very few I might add.....that chastise me for some junk food choice. I, however, encounter tsunami's of people that make all sorts of crass comments when I say I don't eat meat....work lunches, friendly dinners, formal gatherings..you name it....It doesn't bother me per se, its just interesting that most people think nothing of berating people for vegetarian food choices......for some reason it really freaks them out.

Posted by: Zedd | Aug 30, 2006 6:10:25 PM

I would never give anyone shit for genuinely liking to eat tofu or not liking to eat meat. I only give people shit if it's a matter of principle for them--that is, if they let something as trivial as personal belief take precedence over something as important as food.

Posted by: Tom Hilton | Aug 30, 2006 6:44:20 PM

Here's a counter-argument (against silly anti-tofu antagonists who claim soy is not manly):

Testosterone gel can be prescribed by MD's to counter either low total natural testosterone in the bloodsteam or for low 'free' testosterone (that good portion of total testosterone that isn't unhelpfully bound to sex-hormone-binding globulins (SHBG)). Low free testosterone is a serious medical condition: memory deterioration, low libido, etc.

This testosterone product, brand name AndroGel, (a FDA Schedule 1 drug (like heroin and other addictive drugs), is made from SOY! Yep, red-blooded male hormones made from the lowly soy plant. Its a schedule 1 drug because somebody is afraid men will use it solely to pump up those muscles and win sports events - the mother of all steroids.

Is their any other food product that can take on so many roles? Chicken, crab, turkey, tofu, and other protein substitutes.

And now soy is the best friend of the male libido.

Posted by: JimPortlandOR | Aug 30, 2006 6:46:51 PM

I don't know that I've ever met anyone who was a militaristic vegetarian or vegan. But I have seen them get lectured quite a bit by meat eaters, which makes me think that the meat eaters think those who practice widespread vegicide have a point.

I haven't read The Omnivore's Dilemma, but from the publisher's description it seems to be mistitled. It appears to be more about the dilemma of trying to eat food in the USA.

I've taken a look at many vegetarian and vegan food products, and while everything might be organic and all that, it's still over-processed - usually because it's trying to imitate some other over-processed convenience food.

Tofu, on the other hand, is good stuff. I never ate it, really, until I lived in Korea. It's a nice add-on to soups, but when they served tofu as the main dish in the Faculty Dining Room, I usually got seconds.

Another good use for soy is in samjang, which is a fermented soybean paste that is mixed with. . .checks fridge. . .garlic of course, sesame, mustard (asian I guess), ginger and something called, in the English ingredient list, "koji." Huh. Of course, the samjang one gets in restaurants is far superior to what I use at home. I once asked my students if they knew how to make it so good, and they said sure. All you have to do is at "mat" to it. I ran out of class and excitedly looked it up in my Korean-English dictionary. "Mat," I would have remembered if I wasn't so hopeful, is the Korean word for "flavor." I wanted to flunk the whole class.

Posted by: Stephen | Aug 30, 2006 6:53:17 PM

My daughter tried not eating meat. She was a pretenditarian. Her problem is she likes fresh shrimp. I just point out all the little lives that were lost just to fill up her plate.

Didn't brain size grow because of meat eating? I hope you brain isn't shrinking because of tofu.

Posted by: Ron Greiner | Aug 30, 2006 6:53:52 PM

I am an unabashed meat eater who loves tofu. I am also really keen on TVP and wheat gluten. I can even cook great vegetarian and vegan foods. I love meat substitutes a lot and totaly dig beans and rice - I could be a vegetarian - but for my love of meat on occasion.

I really don't care much about food politics but happily respect others views even when I don't agree. If someone chooses to make their food intake an issue of principal, good for them - I do even though I eat meat. If they don't beleive eating meat is ethical - who am I to judge or get annoyed with them? I take personal belief and principle into account when I eat - I have issues with factory farmed meat. Ultimately I prefer to eat meat from an animal I killed - I kill one every year or so to help maintain a spiritual connection to my sustenence, just as I try to raise food plants - not well or in quantity - as a gesture to more direct connection to what nurishes me. I susppose some might find that kind of nutty but it doesn't matter - I know why I do it and what it means to me - that's what's important.

I have noticed after dating many a vegan and vegetarian - they taste better. Kissing and other intimate actions just taste better with a vegetarian. Their bodies produce different enzymes for digestion than meat eaters and as a result also some different oral bacteria - it takes a few years for this to be effective but it is the truth - veggies taste better. And not just when kissing. . .

Posted by: DuWayne | Aug 30, 2006 7:06:20 PM

Didn't brain size grow because of meat eating? I hope you brain isn't shrinking because of tofu.

No. In fact soy is absolutely wonderful brain food. I believe it's the lecithin.

The brain can become starved for oxegyn when one eats to much fatty meat and clogs their arteries.

Posted by: DuWayne | Aug 30, 2006 7:10:42 PM

Not that I am not an extremely confidant heterosexual type dude, but jimportland was so convincing i ran to the kitchen and chugged a bottle of kikkoman

Posted by: bob mcmanus | Aug 30, 2006 7:14:16 PM

Dammit bob - I just blew coffee out my nose. . .

Posted by: DuWayne | Aug 30, 2006 7:19:17 PM

Tofu's nice stuff. Good to cook with. I like the chinese wheat gluten proteins, too; they take Mexican really really well. Killer tacos.

Oh, and I also really like chicken. You can have my Tandoori when you pry it from my cold dead fingers.

Posted by: NBarnes | Aug 30, 2006 7:19:20 PM

Weirdly, I'm not too fond of tofu, but this discussion makes me wonder if it's a freshness isssue.

I have no doubt men get harangued more. They are less likely to be vegetarians than women, and that's the reason.

Posted by: Amanda Marcotte | Aug 30, 2006 7:40:48 PM

I once went to a triple bachelor party in Vegas and the only one of the 40 guys who hired a prostitute was also the only person who, the next night, got the vegetarian meal at the steak house. There were guys who couldn't get their heads around this (alleged) contradiction. Ridiculous but true: meat-eating is a sign of manhood. American culture, baby. And there are metaphorical explanations that I won't go into on this semi-family-friendly blog.

Posted by: david mizner | Aug 30, 2006 7:54:23 PM

Ezra, I'm a tofu fan too, but don't fool yourself: tofu is not any lower in fat than meat in general. It doesn't have cholesterol (since it comes from a plant), but it actually gets about half its calories from fat.

Posted by: KCinDC | Aug 30, 2006 8:12:58 PM

You can take the boy out of Santa Cruz, but you can't take the Santa Cruz out of the boy....

Posted by: J Bean | Aug 30, 2006 8:18:26 PM

"I think part of the bias against tofu is that a lot of what was available was so bad for so long. Freshness and quality matter with tofu, just like with any other perishable food. Even with a good sauce, old tofu can be pretty lousy."

You can eat really good tofu cold and unadorned.

But if you're willing to cook and or flavor the shit out of it, any tofu that hasn't gone bad can be made wonderfully tasty.

Posted by: Petey | Aug 30, 2006 8:33:25 PM

just sharing my belief...
as i get older, i just wonder to myself how people can eat the bodies of animals.
looking into the sentient eyes of cows, lambs, birds..at the remarkable scales on a fish, just out of the water, and their huge bright eyes...i can no longer imagine eating them by choice.
....there have been recent studies done on the warmth and loving nature of barnyard animals...their affection for human beings... their long-term recognition of humans who have been kind and loving to them.
why we see fit to cherish them any less than cats and dogs, and see fit to cook them and eat them is something that i no longer can understand.
we are all on the same path.
...perhaps in northernmost places, where there may be no choice for survival but to eat our brother and sister animals, it may be done with prayer and conscious gratitude...but where choice exists, it seems to me to be unthinkable.
...at this point in our own spiritual evolution, i think we should be learning from all animals, rather than eating them.

Posted by: jacqueline | Aug 30, 2006 8:35:02 PM

"tofu is not any lower in fat than meat in general"

Sat fat is bad for you in a way non-sat fat is not.

Posted by: Petey | Aug 30, 2006 8:35:25 PM

You cook tofu? No wonder I didn't like it.

Posted by: Ronald Brak | Aug 30, 2006 8:40:18 PM

And just as a general rule, all food that comes from Japan is yummy. It's the only perfect cuisine on the planet.

Posted by: Petey | Aug 30, 2006 8:43:57 PM

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