Long before the first waves of Chinese immigrants, and very long before the first vegetarian hippies discovered a substitute for meat, the concept of tofu made its way to America from the east. How far east are we talking, though? Was James Madison digging into a revolutionary bowl of Buddha’s Delight, or was Alexander Hamilton deep-frying cubes of the good stuff for General Tso’s?
The Smithsonian reports that the first American to discover tofu was in fact Benjamin Franklin. The earliest recorded history of Americans interacting with tofu comes from a letter from Franklin to famed American botanist John Bartram. Writing from London, Franklin claimed he’d encountered a fascinating food item of Chinese origin. He just wasn’t quite sure what it was.
Franklin’s closest guess, “a cheese,” wasn’t so far off — the cheesemaking and tofu-making processes are remarkably similar. Milk, soy or otherwise, forms curds, which are strained and pressed into a protein-rich solid. Having no word for soybeans, Franklin referred to the tofu’s staple ingredient as “Chinese Garavances,” garavances being an Anglicized version of “garbanzos” and sent samples to Bartram to research further. Tofu as a foodstuff would not enter the mainstream American diet for centuries, but the visual of a founding father chowing down on soy protein is pretty entertaining.