Colonial Tofu?

City Tavern, PhiladelphiaMy family visited Philadelphia over President’s Day weekend, and although it was too chilly  for much sightseeing in the Old City historic district, we did eat at City Tavern. Owned and run by Chef Walter Staib (host of the TV series A Taste of History), this fun restaurant is a reconstruction of an 18th century tavern where George Washington and other Founding Fathers dined during the First Continental Congress in 1774, and for decades afterward.

The cuisine at City Tavern is based on 18th century recipes and served by waiters in colonial garb. I started out with raspberry shrub, which is fruit juice vinegar spiked with rum, and my husband ordered a beer flight called “The Ales of the Revolution.” This included a nice ale made following Thomas Jefferson’s recipe (second from left, below), but my favorite was “Poor Richard’s Tavern Spruce” (third from left), an ale based on a recipe by Benjamin Franklin; it had a hint of herbal spruce and a dry finish.

Ales of the Revolution, City Tavern

In addition to the beer, there’s a tofu dish on the menu in honor of Franklin. Colonial tofu?! Franklin, who was a great proponent of native American foods, was also interested in foods from other countries. He learned about soybeans while living in London, and sent some to Philadelphia horticulturist John Bartram in 1770. Here’s how he described “Tau-fu” in a letter to Bartram:

“My ever dear Friend: I send Chinese Garavances. Cheese [is] made of them, in China, which so excited my curiosity…. 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….”

This was the first written mention of tofu in America, although soybeans were brought to the U.S. five years earlier (see the blog Boston 1775 for more about this). But it’s unclear whether Franklin or his contemporaries actually tried making tofu — if any Franklin experts can shed some light on this, I’d love to hear about it. (Tofu wasn’t common in the U.S. until the late 1800s and early 1900s, when Chinese immigrants started producing it. And until the 1970s, most tofu consumers were Asian.)

So the tofu at City Tavern is perhaps not strictly authentic, but it is excellent. Fried with a Sally Lunn bread coating, it’s cooked with tomatoes, seasonal vegetables, and linguine. I couldn’t find the recipe in print, but you can watch a video of Chef Staib preparing the dish on NBC Philadelphia’s 10! Show.

Tofu with Linguine, City Tavern


5 thoughts on “Colonial Tofu?

    • Well he was a vegetarian briefly in his youth (partly to save money so he could buy more books!). But one day, as he wrote in his autobiography, he was becalmed on a boat with people who fished for cod, and the temptation became just too much: “When this came hot out of the Frying Pan, it smelt admirably well. I balanc’d some time between Principle & Inclination: till I recollected, that when the Fish were opened, I saw smaller Fish taken out of their Stomachs: Then thought I, if you eat one another, I don’t see why we mayn’t eat you.”

  1. Pingback: Founding Father Benjamin Franklin’s Influence on American Agriculture –

  2. Pingback: Founding Father Benjamin Franklin’s Influence on American Agriculture |

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