A Different Look at Tofu

In my health nut phases, I like honey/shoyu-glazed tofu with quinoa.

Sure, I love tofu as much as the next Asian American or vegan hipster, but its trendiness factor does little to honor the historical, cultural relevance the food has to certain groups in the United States. Hiroshi Kashiwagi, a second-generation Japanese American who grew up in the Depression era of rural California, spent his childhood evenings and weekends at his father’s fish market helping make tofu while all his white classmates were out hunting or sleeping over friends’ houses. The cake of bean curd became a source of shame and alienation for him, as at the time it (as well as the rest of his culture) was as unknown and mysterious to mainstream America as the Koran is to us now.

Though Kashiwagi has written about attempting to hide his culture as an adolescent, by the time he was a young adult he was more ethnically and politically aware. In 1942, following Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066 Kashiwagi was placed in an internment camp along with tens of thousands of other American and foreign-born Japanese Americans and Japanese nationals. It was then that he honed his passions for writing and acting, and later became known as a “No-No Boy” for refusing to swear unqualified allegiance and military service to the United States in the “loyalty questionnaire” issued by the government. Afterward, he continued writing plays and poetry and was active in the redress movement that eventually led to an official government apology to Japanese Americans and redress payments in 1988. He resides with his wife in San Francisco today.

Hiroshi Kashiwagi and wife Sadako (from hyphenmagazine.com)

Through his written works, performing and advocacy, Kashiwagi has over the years shared his understanding of what it means to be American and has helped others broaden their perspectives of their own definitions. I absolutely love the following poem he has written reclaiming tofu as a cultural artifact, rich with his own personal history.

Tofu

tofu
white blocks
of bean cake
good
protein food
I know
sure I know
two hours
every day
after school
I spent
grinding soy beans
into a
frothy mess
washtubful
for papa’s
famous
fine-textured
number one
three for a quarter
tofu
good
for you
not for me
too much
of my boyhood
went into
good
protein food
now white folks
now vegetarians
have discovered
tofu
they eat it
praise it
even make it
tofu
good
for you
not for me
the goddamned
tofu

From Swimming in the American: A Memoir and Selected Writings by Hiroshi Kashiwagi

Read more about Kashiwagi here and here.

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