Books

To Invent Dinner: On Tofu of Kansas

There’s a poem halfway through Iris Moulton and Daniel Rolf’s Tofu of Kansas that opens with the line, “What else began as a small crusty bean and ended as something bigger softer and completely changed? Us.” That line is the center of this innovative, delightful, and surprisingly thought-provoking chapbook of prose poems and photography from Sensitive House Press. Iris Moulton considers the soybean, and finds the whole of human history tucked inside. At the center of this collection is the humble, pearly bean, from which the whole world unfolds endlessly—industrial science, religious martyrs, the colonization of agriculture, wars, famines, recipes, ancient evolutionary drives, the commodification of food. Appearances are made by Benjamin Franklin, St. Lawrence of Rome, Henry Ford, who in 1941 unveiled a car with an entirely soy-plastic body, as well as the Chinese poets Chu Shi and Chen Yun-tan. There is, it seems, a lot to say about tofu.

Which must have been what Daniel Rolf and Iris Moulton believed when they embarked on their project to create a photographic essay and poem cycle based on their tour of Central Soy Foods of Lawrence, Kansas. Moulton the poet and Rolf the photographer toured the small, sweaty tofu processing factory in the industrial outskirts of Lawrence to learn about how a soybean becomes a wiggly water-packed brick of tofu. It’s a project reminiscent of those Sesame Street segments from the 1980s, the ones that documented various industrial food processes, like cheesemaking. Those mini-documentaries made quite an impression on my child brain, and Moulton’s evocative diction sparked one of my synapses right back to the close-ups of thick, white curds bubbling over vats of whey. Moulton looks closely at the tofu, at its poreless “coagulated sea creature goo,” its clump that “wiggles so bodily we have to turn away.” She smells the spongy whey byproduct, the “crescent skin” floating on top of the tofu milk, the soapy floors. She permeates her poetry with the heat of the building, the heat of the midwestern summer, the heat of the machines and the boiling.

Her poems are paired with Rolf’s photographs: the workers in hairnets, the steel carts lined with knobs and dials, a yellow plastic bucket filled with soaked yellow soybeans, penetrated by a suction hose to vacuum up the excess water. Some of the photographs are wide-angle—a survey of the factory floor spilled over with tofu milk sweeping towards a drain; an establishing shot of the humble, shoddily carpeted office (a lone filing cabinet, a screened window). Some are expository: Here is a vat of whey. Here is a worker choosing fabric through which to strain the curds. Here is a flatbed cart like ones you’d find at Home Depot, weighed down with three bulging plastic bags of yellow coagulated tofu byproduct, blobby and splitting like rising dough, all tinged the yellow of a Mexican tortuga pastry. But other photos are so close-up they become abstract, viable candidates for a “What is this photo?” quiz in the back of a magazine. Perfectly formed white bricks of tofu submerged in clear bubbling water. One side of a steel crate with convex doughy blobs pushing through the uniform rows of holes. And others still signal an artistic narrative behind what the photographer chooses to notice. Two rolls of toilet paper. A broken discarded chair. A rusty metal signplate that reads “Mohawk.” The poem on the opposite page reads, “That machine? We don’t know what it does. This place used to be for something else.”

As Rolf captures the steamy, sweaty, yellow, loud, cold, slimy, tough, salty, tangy adolescence of tofu, Moulton meditates on the history of tofu. The collection is by turns procedural, lyrical, and mythical; one page documents the first appearances of tofu processing centers in the United States, while another grows surreal in its metaphors. One of my favorite passages is an attempted grasp at tofu’s history, which is apparently as slippery as the thing itself:

There is no history. There is only it is said. It is said a trough of boiled soy spilled against the ocean and the curds were plucked by hunger and made real. It is said to have been copied from the barbaric West. It is said the dead have long lost their jaws, but it is said this is soft enough for even them to chew it. It is said you should bring it to them to suckle from your own bare hands. Or what is said becomes history. A prince was inspired by his own white fingers in his mouth and the thing was made.

Sometimes Moulton even employs apostrophe, in prayer-like odes bookended by a bolded letter “O” and a right-justified “Amen.”:

O, Blessed Tofu showed forth the fire of love for you and us by faithful service and glorious martyrdom on this here grill. Make us to love the things which it loves (the peanut sauce, the sriracha), and to do the works that it taught (the lying still, the accepting, the brief and transient nature of existence). Who lives and reigns with you and us and the wine and spirits, for ever and ever.

Amen.

There isn’t such a clear line of demarcation between the explanatory passages (“Presoak the beans for 12 hours”) and the lyrical musings (“It is the face of a bride, white white white and ancient and young.”). Moulton slips her poetic voice into even the most didactic text. For example, one of the early poems is a prose sequence detailing the general process of tofu-making. It reads like a recipe, or like dictation from the factory workers’ instructions, until these lines: “We use sea salt, which is magnesium chloride. Nigari. You have to watch it more closely, it has its own mind. Sometimes we don’t know our own servants.” (Emphasis mine.) These kinds of metaphorical flourishes, or unannounced expansions of focus, populate the entire text. The reader is continually invited to ponder deeper meanings behind the mundane. While Moulton could have stopped at the tactile descriptions of each of tofu’s life-stages and made a very sensual complete ekphrasis of soybean, she kept digging.

So it isn’t that far-fetched that in her digging she strikes the contradictory, fraught history of agricultural industry itself, and within it, the soybean’s own heritage as an industrial wonder product. “It is uncomfortable, the sound of making,” Moulton confesses in one poem paired with Rolf’s photograph of a large steel grinder wheel pressing an unidentified chunky, crumbly mass into a plastic-lined bucket. Off frame, a worker turns the grinder wheel—only his green gloved hands are visible. The grinder is accessorized with tubes, hoses, knobs, dials, steel bars, gears. Moulton’s poem continues, “There is an uncomfortable grinding in the air, metal on metal, metal on matter, making.” She’s hinting here, I think, at the bizarre path food preparation has taken as human civilization has evolved. We are now able to use machinery and chemistry to turn biological matter into products, into commodities that would have been completely unrecognizable as food to our proto-human ancestors, but which we purchase every day, “packed in water and near the organic cucumbers.”

To her credit, Moulton’s text remains refreshingly undecided on the virtues or evils of this ubiquitous practice. There is enough evidence that capitalist industrial farming and food processing often wreaks devastating havoc on the ecosystem to produce nutritionally worthless cheap calorie-bombs in plastic packages. But Moulton cedes the polemic ground to the food justice activists whose research-heavy narratives are more suited to those arguments. Instead, her prose poems assume a tone of marveling. “Can you believe what we have done?” she seems to be asking, not in an offended, accusatory manner, but as if to invite us to consider: Look at what humans can do. “Tamp and press and shape. All things to do this. The way a burrow is made, a hive. All humans crouch and worry to invent dinner.”

Which is not to say that Moulton’s poems are void of philosophical hints or flashes of rhetoric. After a poem in which she informs us that 400 pounds of beans produce 750 pounds of tofu, she appears to sing vegetarian praises: “Take something and work it into more than what you started with or take something and work it into less. What is the weight differential for the factories littered with hide, bone, eyes, and shit? Here we leave nothing behind. Here we weigh more than when we started.”

But later in the book, there are a series of poems about the soybean’s role in the Century of Progress. The myriad industrial uses for soy are listed: “soy oil for use in lacquer paint on cars, in shock absorbers, in the manufacture of cores. Defatted soybean meal + phenol + formaldehyde makes a plastic. Makes car horns, foot pedals, glove compartment doors, tractor seats.”  Not exactly the stuff of a green, cruelty-free revolution. The poem on the opposite page begins by answering an unspoken question: “It costs the land a lot is why.”

Finally, in a clever turn, Moulton draws a connection between the grillable, practically deified tofu, made in Lawrence, Kansas, and St. Lawrence of Rome, patron saint of tanners and cooks, who, when he was martyred by being seared on a grill, supposedly remarked, “Tis well done! Turn me over.” The phrase, “St. Lawrence on the grill” is woven into a few of the poems in the book.

The tactile experience of reading Tofu of Kansas cannot be overlooked either. Rolf’s photographs are not printed on the page, but inlaid there, the corners slipped into pocket slits, giving the book a scrapbook feel. There are also simple pencil illustrations interspersed throughout, such as a bucket foregrounded by a rolling hillside, or a plain line-drawing of a cube, framed by the words “Hunger” and “Accident.” To the front cover is glued a soft yellow soy-based sponge. Each edition comes with an origami-wrapped packet of soybeans and instructions for making your own tofu, and is lovingly bound with twine. All of this—the poetic exploration, the photographs, the soybeans—add up to a truly thoughtful piece of art.

(And also: Come back in a few weeks for a supplement to this review, to be run in The Weather, in which I’ll detail my effort to make tofu from scratch.)

Lauren Eggert-Crowe's writing has appeared in Salon, The Rumpus, L.A. Review of Books, and DIAGRAM, among others. She is the author of two poetry chapbooks, The Exhibit and In The Songbird Laboratory. She lives in Los Angeles.