J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Monday, April 30, 2012

Benjamin Franklin Discovers Tofu for America

I’ve previously written about Benjamin Franklin’s experiment with vegetarianism while he was a bothersome teenager in Boston.

Now comes word from Ben Franklin 300 (via Robin Shreeves at the Mother Nature Network) that Franklin is the first American documented as sending soybeans to North America and describing tofu. [ADDENDUM: See this follow-up.]

The tercentenary site quotes this letter from Franklin in London to naturalist John Bartram in Philadelphia on 11 Jan 1770:
I send, also, some green dry Pease, highly esteemed here as the best for making pease soup; and also some Chinese Garavances, with Father [Ferdinand] Navaretta’s account of the universal use of a cheese made of them, in China, which so excited my curiosity, that I caused inquiry 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 learnt, that some runnings of salt (I suppose runnet) is put into water when the meal is in it, to turn it to curds.

I think we have Garavances with us; but I know not whether they are the same with these, which actually came from China, and are what the Tau-fu is made of. They are said to be of great increase.
This letter was transcribed differently in nineteenth-century editions of Franklin’s works, leaving out the phrase about “Tau-fu.” Pamela Roper Wagner writes at the Oxford English Dictionary site that this letter antedates the next appearance of “tofu” in English writing by over a century. As for “garavances,” which Franklin thought soybeans were similar to, those are now better known as garbanzo beans.


William Shurtleff said...

Thank you for the part about tofu, which is correct. But the part about soybeans is incorrect. Franklin was the 2nd person to send soybeans to the USA; Samuel Bowen was the first. Read "Introduction of the Soybean to North America by Samuel Bowen by Samuel Bowen in 1765," by T. Hymowitz and J.R. Harlan (Economic Botany, 37(4), 1983. William Shurtleff

J. L. Bell said...

I fear we Americans are prone to consider Benjamin Franklin the first to do everything. Thanks for the reference to Samuel Bowen’s work five years earlier!

Peter Fisk said...

But surely Franklin was the first to incorporate tofu into a long-hair-and-free-love lifestyle along with anti-authoritarian activism.