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. In a letter dated January 11, 1770, Franklin wrote: “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 18(th) 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 18(th)-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.”