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

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.

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.'"

Since Franklin is credited with inventing the lightning rod and bifocals, forming the first American lending library and coining about a third of history's quotable phrases, it doesn't seem impossible that he would bring tofu to the New World as well. That said, I'm sure I can be forgiven for having assumed tofu came to the United States, oh, somewhere around 1973 at a mom-and-pop store in Berkeley.

So how well do the leaders of Orange County's vegetarian spots know their colonial history? I put a few calls in upon returning home, and they proved to be as ignorant as I was. Despite their ingenuity in whipping up tofu dishes, staff at Native Foods, Bodhi Tree and elsewhere hadn't heard about the Founding Father connection.

Still, anyone who puts up with the annoying questions lobbed at vegetarians — "Where do you get your protein?" "Haven't you heard of the food chain?" "If you were on a desert island with your girlfriend and a cow and you could only eat one, what would you do?" — must be relieved to know that the lifestyle predates the Constitution.

And for those who struggle to follow a meatless diet, don't be ashamed; Franklin did too. According to the Tercentenary website, he followed it off and on throughout his life but constantly caved.

He did, however, write a maxim in Poor Richard's Almanack that warned against gluttony of all kinds: "Be temperate in Wine, in eating, Girls, and Sloth, or the Gout will sieze you and plague you both."

If I ever open a restaurant, vegan or not, I'll make that the official slogan.

City Editor MICHAEL MILLER can be reached at (714) 966-4617 or at

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