“Beef what a relief/When will this poisonous product cease? /This is another public service announcement /You can believe it or you can doubt it…” – KRS-One of Boogie Down Productions – “Beef”
Different ingredients make up different types of foods. Tofu is an ingredient that makes up a huge part of the meals eaten within many cultures and households. The memories, experiences, and realizations I have associated with tofu in dishes prepared by my family have contributed to the development of my cultural identity over time.
My father and stepmother’s Dominican and Puerto Rican cultural identities helped me understand my own cultural identity simply through the meals they ate that included tofu. Before I was a born, my father was a vegan. By default he could not consume dairy products thanks to the genes we Rodriguez folks carry. Soon afterwards, my father left eating meat. It was through the inspiring lyrics of KRS-One that sparked a new path for my father. Between the summer of 1994-1996 meat was dropped from the plates my father consumed. His palatechanged forever. He said “and just being a more knowledgeable eater there was no turning back.” Fast forward to the year 2013, and the only thing he would be turning on is the stove to prepare the marvelous tofu slices that would soon be in tofu sandwiches. My father learned through the 90’s how to drop all the unnecessary food in his life. However, he needed something to supplement for protein. He was able to find the wonderful invention of tofu nuggets. My father would give them to me with his talented and scrumptious salad and pretend he was a chef. As a meat eater, I noticed these nuggets were different. I didn’t care, because I ate them. But I noticed the amazing texture of the crispy outside and the semi-firm feeling of the tofu. It was delicious. I also noticed, it didn’t go down as heavy as meat did. My first memory of tofu made me fall in love.
Later, my father fell in love again with my stepmother, the best cook in the world. My stepmother followed my father’s footsteps and became a vegan. As a young girl, I would notice her experiment with different whole foods and vegan ingredients. She was a mad scientist. That was especially true when it came to tofu. Sitting in front of the tv in Westchester Square, I noticed her preparing some sort of sandwich. She minced onions, peppers, and tomatoes. Minutes later, she called me over to eat. It was a tofu sandwich. At that moment, I fell in love with the amazing flavors that hit my mouth. The way the toasty bread, the onions, ketchup, and vegan mayonnaise hit my mouth opened a world for me. But as soon as I reached the tofu and its egg like consistency, I felt reality hit me once again. I was eating something that was a healthy and nutritious alternative. Tofu had its relevance within my youth and blossoming mind.
Growing up, tofu helped me understand that I was different than most of the peers I surrounded myself with. First, tofu is an ingredient mainly used in the Eastern and Southern Asian cuisine. However, I live on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. It wasn’t common to see someone my age eat a tofu sandwich. Most of my peers ate ham and turkey, ham and cheese, bacon, egg and cheese, and pizza for lunch. Second, the peers I had around me did not even know what veganism or vegetarianism. Most of the children around me have parents that have raised them to think that consuming meat and dairy products are the correct way to go about eating. My classmates did not know that there were foods like tofu that can supplement the meat in their diets. On the contrary, I knew that tofu is a delicious alternative that can substitute many meat products for meals. Third, they didn’t understand how delicious it is. They would all look at me strange when I would eat tofu sandwiches for lunch on the Mondays I went to school, after spending the weekend at my father’s house. With all of that in mind, I was able to learn the value of being unique. I learned that being the pebble in a pile of rocks was a good thing. Being this pebble created a fundamental understanding of the individuality I had within the home I grew up in. These realizations would help me in the future understand the identity I would create for myself.
“What type of rebel eats pork?!” – common – “Maintaining”
Tofu has introduced me to new cultures and with that, helped me understand my own in a greater extent. The constant use of tofu in meals has made my palate more comfortable to trying new foods. The idea of eating a food that is not in the typical Dominican or Puerto Rican cuisine has given me the ability to want to try and experiment. I go to many Asian restaurants to explore how they use their spices to prepare different dishes that include tofu. Equally important, it brought me to understand who I am as a Latina. While the Latin American community is known for preparing divine food, there are cons to the ways in which we make food. A lot of the food made has tons of meat, dairy, oils, bleached grains, and little vegetables. This leads to diseases: diabetes, cancer, asthma, and many more. Looking at the way my stepmother prepares her vegan Dominican food I have become more aware and cautious as to what I put into my body. I know now that I can make my foods in a way that resembles my culture but has the healthy alternatives. For example, instead of making mangu with a fried egg, I will make mangu with a nice tofu scramble and pair it with some cucumber and tomato. There are many ways to change your diet and still keep the key parts of your culture. It was important for me to understand the different aspects of typical Dominican culture to understand how to replace things within it, yet maintaining the key fundamentals of it. I have recognized and cherished many elements to the foundation of my identity through tofu.
Throughout the different stages of my life, tofu guided me to understanding the identity by channeling other identities. Tofu helped me understand the person I have become. Food is not about what you taste, but what is healthy for your body and growth. Food is about what you put into your body and soul.
“I don’t eat no meat, no dairy, no sweets/only ripe vegetables, fresh fruit and whole wheat/I’m from the old school, my household smell like soul food, bro/curried falafel, barbecued tofu…” – “Be Healthy” – stic.man of dead prez