You Can Thank Ben Franklin for Introducing Tofu to America

Tofu is inexpensive, nutritious and versatile. (Photo: margouillat/Shutterstock)

Earlier this week my family took a 90-minute walking ghost tour of Old City and Society Hill, the historic sections of Philadelphia that are home to the likes of Independence Hall, the Liberty Bell, Betsy Ross House and many other historically significant landmarks.

Our tour guide from Ghost Tour of Philadelphia said, "You can't swing a dead cat without hitting some spot where the ghost of Benjamin Franklin has been spotted." You also can't swing a dead cat without seeing some reference to Franklin in the city; his influence and achievements are still obvious everywhere in Philadelphia.

The tour ended at the City Tavern, the oldest continuously run tavern in the country. Our tour guide told us about the ghosts that are frequently seen (or felt) in the tavern before bidding us goodnight. My youngest son wanted to go in the tavern to see if we could find any ghosts. We went in, but sadly saw no ghosts. (Although, the waiter who showed us to the basement rooms strangely disappeared quickly, so we're going with the story that maybe he was a ghost himself.)

What I did see, though, was this little piece of information. One of the night's specials was fried tofu. Fried tofu at a colonial tavern? That seemed so 1970 not 1770. There was this explanation on the specials board: "Benjamin Franklin introduced tofu to the colonies in a 1770 letter to Philadelphia's John Bartram."

The Ben Franklin 300 website has a section dedicated to Franklin's favorite foods, and it gives more information about Franklin's discovery of tofu.

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."

I find information like this really interesting, and I thought I’d pass it along to you as kind of a mid-week food history lesson. Who would have guessed the Ben Franklin introduced tofu to the American colonies?

Tofu wasn't the only thing Franklin introduced. It seems he also sent rhubarb seeds and Scotch cabbage seeds to the colonies.