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[whitespace] Tofu Your 15 Minutes Are Up: Tofu has long since outlived its cachet for diners now hungry for tenderloin steaks.

Photograph by George Sakkestad

Take Back The Tofu

Politically correct dining has cramped our culinary styles long enough

By Christina Waters

A SMARMY VEGAN colleague once warned me to never eat anything that could run away. He delivered this smug little lecture just as we were about to sit down to dinner at the Harris Ranch, home of big, juicy tenderloin steaks.

This guy's special dietary needs (i.e., lifestyle du jour) held the meal hostage while the kitchen improvised some fettuccine primavera. While we all waited, the carniphobe blathered on that if something can run away that means it doesn't want to be eaten.

And what about lettuce? I silently fumed. Surely those designer baby greens--raised for quick slaughter and mindless dismemberment at fine restaurants throughout the world--would run screaming from the hands reaching down to pluck them ... if they could.

So, does that make the ancient ancestor of today's arugula dumber (excuse me, more intellectually challenged) than some fleet-footed gazelle? Who speaks for salad rights these days? Everybody's so worried about cows and chickens that they've forgotten our early collective origins as blue-green algae. But I digress.

Back in the politically incorrect past, i.e., 1950, America consumed more than its fair share of meatloaf, pot roast, prime rib, veal scaloppine, pork chops and fried chicken, with nary a thought of karmic consequences.

But the consciousness-raising era of the early '70s changed all that. Once our doors of perception were opened, we could see clearly now that we were simply one lifetime away from reincarnation as a hen.

Rice, the staple of exotic India, and tofu--the highly hyped legume-based protein source--began to gain currency with hippies eager to protest anything that would piss off their parents. Eating bowls of quivering, gelatinous white stuff in front of straight-arrow Dad soon became a recreational activity for the oft-stoned.

The idea took hold that killing animals for human consumption was evil, and research turned up lurid evidence that factory farming was indeed toxic to planet, animals and--thanks to steroids, antibiotics and chemically treated feed--to the human consumer as well.

TO SAY THAT the crusade for politically correct dining has grown over the past three decades is like saying that Liz Taylor has put on a few pounds.

Political correctitude arrived along with multiculturalism (this makes tofu more correct than a potato) and awareness of so-called animal rights (up with polenta, down with pork). Today, those animal rights include such livestock liberties as grazing on the open range or in spacious ungulate condos supplied with organic feed.

But this kinder, gentler approach to fattening up the sacred calf has also led to the absurdity of vegetarianism for pets. (Check out those razor-sharp incisors on Fluffy and ask yourself whether the relative of the lion was really intended to eat soy whey.)

Soon the PC yen for sprouts, tofu (which has enjoyed way more than its allotted 15 minutes, BTW) and raw vegetables turned into a quest for dairy-free and wheat-free products. Pastry shops exhausted their contacts looking for ever more esoteric ingredients like faro and spelt, prune concentrate and organic grape puree, as substitutes for butter and white flour--seen as the staples of bourgeois imperialism.

Consciousness-raising about the environment spawned mega-PC activism. The facts were sobering. It took a whole lot of land to grow your basic steak. Cattle were blamed for destroying the rain forest, topsoil and the ozone layer. Soybeans became the darling--the bland, tasteless darling--of diners desperate for alternate protein. The sudden explosion of hot sauces and salsas was one response to the withering blandness of tofu.

PC soon cast its malnourished shadow across the list of endangered (or at least hard-to-get) fauna, making caviar a no-no and wild abalone a mere memory. The tendency of dolphins to get caught in commercial fishing apparatus made the consumption of even canned tuna a political hot potato.

Abandoning meat for esoteric combinations of grains, legumes and megavitamins, the politically correct grew grumpy. While their bodies starved, their bad attitudes flourished.

Beef fell off the banquet wagon at roughly the same moment Americans learned the word "cholesterol." And faster than you could say "mad cow," the building block of Western civilization became the leper of
dining. (Except in the inner city, where Big Macs, Taco Bell fajitas and KFC animal fat still rule.)

It became hard to tell where PC left off and plain old-fashioned snobbery began. The eau minerale despots decreed that everybody had to drink bottled mineral water. It began innocently enough with Evian and Perrier, but soon it was Welsh water, limestone-filtered liquids from caves in the south of France and H20 from Paiute wells. By the time the designer splash had settled down, San Pellegrino had become part of the restaurant furniture.

BABY VEGETABLES also became de rigueur, the tinier the better. PC yuppies would rather have burned their Banana Republic T-shirts than be caught eating a large
carrot or a midsized beet. "Chicken"
morphed into "free-range game hen." Menus became encyclopedias of political correctitude, listing as ingredients "foraged mushrooms," "wild-crafted crayfish" and "gathered greens."

How about "stolen" eggs? After all, chickens take all those arduous days and nights to manufacture their next generation, only to have the eggs plucked out from under them prior to hatching. Poultry harassment? Perhaps. Is eating chocolate ice cream, then, a case of cow abuse? Or cocoa bean genocide? Just something to think about.

PC prissiness bred such absurdities as Tofurky--as if real turkey weren't tasteless enough all on its own--and tamarind tofutti. Heady with moral indignation, the fanaticism of PC led to the inevitable closeting of meat consumption.

Behind locked doors, men, women and children starved for flavorful protein inhaled burgers, hot dogs and pork chops--with ketchup! By day, they ordered ice tea and Caesar salads--egg-free dressing on the side, of course. By night, however, they feasted wantonly on baby back ribs and Jim Beam--also blacklisted by prudish purists.

Is it hypocritical that a country grown fat on land stolen from Native Americans should condemn consumers for eating honey? The hyper-PC believe that taking honey from beehives amounts to alienating the bees from the fruits of their labor. It's a dirty trick--bee bashing, if you will.

Following this self-righteous reasoning to its logical conclusion, one is reduced to gathering fruit only after it has fallen, rotten from the tree--or else stand accused of arboreal exploitation. Actually, starvation is very likely the only consistent PC option. You do the math.

The inevitable backlash arrived with the '90s resurgence of the steakhouse (dovetailing with the anti-feminist urge for real men to take back the steak knife). Japanese gourmets--who take a back seat to no one in the quest for daredevil dining--call for live clams and whale blubber. Former vegans are openly experimenting with grilled fish and chicken. The PC tide, like all fads enslaving the collective consciousness, appears to have turned. PC rage is dwindling. After all, it's hard to stay smug and angry when you're dying for a pork taco.

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From the May 2-9, 2001 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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