Sunday, September 28, 2008

The History of Tofu

I made tofu with broccoli and bean sprouts for dinner last Sunday night. The husband had weekend duty at his boarding school. This meant staying on campus almost the entire weekend, driving the boarders to various events and, inevitably, overeating bad food. It's a time-tested, anxiety release strategy for on-duty faculty. From his recounting, in one afternoon, he ate several slices of pizza, both washed down with soda; a large coffee; much candy; and a turkey sandwich. This may not sound so bad, but mixed with fulltime teenage contact, it put him over the edge. I intended the tofu as a counter-action to the junk indulgences.

I have a strange relationship with tofu. I buy it regularly, intending to use it in a stir-fry. But time after time, I pass it by. It sits in my refrigerator for a week, or weeks, until I finally breakdown and cook it up. I am usually pleasantly surprised with the results. But I never lust after it, as I do for a hot-out-of-the-oven muffin or a well made pasta sauce.

I first encountered the snowy white, bean cake at Siam Restaurant in Lambertville, NJ. I worked for Siam through much of the 1980s. I worked six nights a week. And nearly six nights a week, I chose to eat tofu for dinner (I was a vegetarian, of sorts, back then). Stir fried tofu with bean sprouts, that was my dish of choice. It may sound bland. It sure wasn't anything to look at, very white and gray. But when the tofu and bean sprouts were fresh, and the jasmine rice was pipping hot, it had a clean, squeaky, clear, garlicky, fish-saucy taste that I loved.

(The husband and our friends, Zoe and Neil, in front of Siam. Whenever they visit, we end up there. They like it; we like it. It's a tradition.)

Anyway, back to tofu...

Siam gets its tofu (and other Thai ingredients) from Chinatown in Philadelphia. When I worked there, I went on several of these grocery trips. The Thai subculture in Philly is small as are the Thai food stores. I recall going to one of these matchbox sized stores with Timmy, the owner-chef, and listening to his back and forth with the shopkeeper as they both dragged on Marlboros. After they caught up, Timmy started to fill his order--cases of tinned curry, coconut milk and lychee nuts, palm sugar and Thai snacks for his family- bags of miniscule dried shrimp, a fishy-smelling wad that looked like pale-pink cotton candy, and other bizarre-to-me items.

I realize, upon reflection, that I developed my first foodie inclinations at Siam. I ate the on-the-menu dishes, the aforementioned tofu and much more. But I also ate the after-hours stuff that Timmy wouldn't serve to Americans. Bowls of searingly-hot green curry thick with bamboo rods, fish ball soup, steamed chicken feet, deep-fried cubes of pork fat, winter melon soup, hard boiled eggs stewed in a pitch black broth scented with star anise, old-rice soup. Back then, I refused nothing and I only ate with a large spoon and fork, Thai style. I wanted to be one of them, a Thai authentic, not one of the customers to whom they served Americanized-Thai.

I learned a lot about cooking (and Thailand) just from watching Timmy and from talking to him about food. At one point, I even contemplated switching from the front to the back of the house. But the tips were just too good. Too bad, maybe if I had made the switch, I could make a tofu dish worth looking forward to.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

A Skeptic's Food History

The food of my childhood was pretty unremarkable. My sorta-suburban family of five ate what my mother made. This generally meant such things as roast chicken and Bisquick biscuits, roast beef and potatoes, El Paso Tacos with ground meat and iceberg lettuce, something called "hungarian goulash," and loose meat with gravy over mashed potatoes, to name the most memorable. I can't complain about any of it. It was well cooked and tasty. I was a hungry little person. I ate everything thankfully. My mother also had a weakness for health fads. In the late 1970s, she got swept up in the natural foods trends. These were not my family's best gastronomic years. Our 70s dinner table groaned with weird curried concoctions served with raisins and shaved (unsweetened) coconut, grape nut bread and other indistinct items. Again, I ate everything thankfully. I was hungry most of the time. Apparently my maternal grandmother made wicked pies, cakes and cinnamon buns. I don't recall, she didn't live near us. I do have a clear summer memory of making dinner with my paternal grandmother (aka momma). The menu that night included pan fried steak, salad, and instant mashed potatoes. While whipping the mashed potatoes, my momma threw in a dash or two of garlic powder. What innovation, I thought. And, like always, I ate everything thankfully, especially those garlicky instant potatoes.

As you can imagine, my childhood did not foster a very specific food identity. I became a mediocre-to-very poor cook once out on my own. As my boyfriend-to-be-husband used to say, "we can both make an okay pot of slop." This all changed when I began my dissertation on natural foods. I spent so much time reading and thinking about food that I started to learn and cook. Our (me and the husband's) food life improved dramatically. I continued to read about food and cook and bake. I became a bit of an aesthete, a searcher for the special and the delicious.

So why a skeptical foodie, you ask? Part of me is happy to revel in food luxury. I, as much as the foodie next store, love to look at seductively photographed food magazines. In the summer I get my fruit and vegtables only from the two farmstands near my house. The quality is undeniable. I just recently started perusing food blogs: I'm hooked. But I feel a little dirty after these indulgences. When I'm honest with myself, the whole foodie things feels frivolously bourgeois.

My years as a food historian bred a two headed beast: the food lover and the food skeptic. That's where I'm at.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Food as Healer

A recent encounter with a neighbor's relative got me to thinking about how we moderns unreflexively turn to food in a health crisis. I can't tell you the number of times that I have talked to someone confronting a newly diagnosed disease who immediately invokes diet and food as remedy or cause.There is a sort of moral self-judgement going on-if I had eaten correctly, I wouldn't have this disease. I am suffering for my dietary laxity. Or they move to food as a protective shield against further bodily invasion. I know that most of this is about the desire to find control in the face of wildly uncontrollable circumstances: disease and death. I know that food and diet create order, create focus, create mastery, when one feels powerless to self-decay and the medical establishment. But I am always taken aback by the instantaneous gravitation to the food as healer idea.

Don't get me wrong, I fall for it too. I don't feel well for more than a few days and you bet I'm gonna start regimenting my diet. But why people (me too) think that diet can do anything about an already established disease, I do not know. I guess it is an act of prayer, a good luck gesture. A symbolic kowtow to unknowable forces: "I got your message. I know I am mortal. Shit, just let me get well and I promise I will behave."