1. THE BULLETPROOF COFFEE
Ten days ago at the gym I learned that some of the trainers put butter and coconut oil in their coffee. I’d never heard of such a thing and as soon as I got home, googled it. So-called bulletproof coffee turns out to be a trend among people on Primal and Paleo-style diets. It involves blending single-origin, wet-processed coffee, grass-fed butter, and coconut oil to make a drink that supposedly keeps you calm, energized, nourished, sated, mentally alert, and slender. The inventor claims to have raised his IQ by more than 20 points after adopting a lifestyle that includes this coffee. Make up your own minds, friends. To me, he sounds like a snake oil salesman, but that didn’t diminish my interest in trying his snake oil.
I bought the ingredients at Whole Foods, where the fancy coffee cost roughly $20 per pound and the pastured butter $8 per pound. It’s not cheap, raising your IQ.
Tuesday morning, I blended the concoction in the Vitamix for 30 seconds to emulsify the fats. Mark was appalled and would divorce me if I made this a habit, so I won’t. Also, a Vitamix is too loud for 5 a.m. But bulletproof coffee turned out to be delicious, mellow and rich. My lips were soft and buttery for hours afterward and I was pleasantly full all day, despite eating virtually nothing. I also had abundant energy to execute my second culinary project of the morning, which was to make tofu.
2. THE TOFU
Recently, someone gave me a bottle of nigari, a brine extracted from sea water that the Japanese use to curdle soy milk. I bought soybeans at the health food store, pulled out Andrea Nguyen’s superlative Asian Tofu, and set aside an hour to make tofu.
Here’s the gist of tofu: Soak soybeans, grind them with water, briefly heat. Strain, forcing all the liquid out of the ground beans. Now you have soy milk. Cook this for about 5 minutes, add some nigari, and pour into a mold. This can be anything from a dedicated wooden tofu mold to a sieve. Weight down your tofu with whatever you have around (cans, little barbells, stones) for 20 minutes. Lift the weights and you’re looking at a block of tofu, cheap, humble component of the Chinese diet for at least a thousand years. The yield from 12 ounces of dried soybeans was a pound of lovely tofu, which hardly seems possible. Huge success.
3. MY TOFU IS VILIFIED!
That afternoon at the gym I mentioned my tofu to the trainer who’d told me about bulletproof coffee. She grimaced and said, “I used to be a vegetarian and ate lots of tofu, but now I wouldn’t touch the stuff. Soy is one of the big GMO crops and tofu is so processed.”
I wasn’t about to debate GMOs at the gym, but I couldn’t let her second criticism pass. I said, “Having just made it, I can tell you that tofu isn’t very processed."
Yes and no.
Which brings me to my frustration with the term “processed food” used as shorthand for things like Pringles, baloney, Uncrustables, and instant pistachio pudding.
According to the dictionary, to process means to “change or preserve by a series of mechanical or chemical operations.” Tofu is clearly a processed food. So is steamed broccoli. Grilled steak? Processed. Bulletproof coffee is extremely processed as it requires processing together coconut oil (processed), butter (processed), and coffee (processed several times). If you won’t touch tofu because it’s processed, you'll need to stay away from bulletproof coffee too.
But of course the processing isn’t really what’s objectionable about “processed foods.” What’s objectionable is the fact that cheap, inferior, artificial ingredients are used to cut costs and extend shelf life, sharply diminishing the flavor and nutritional value of a given product. A better term (thought not perfect) might be “adulterated foods.” Both a homemade chocolate chip cookie and a Chips Ahoy cookie have been processed, but only the Chips Ahoy cookie has been adulterated.
Unfortunately, the term “processed foods” is here to stay and I’m just going to have to live with it.
Getting back to my story: Is tofu a food that has been processed? Yes. Is it a “processed food?” No.
5. POOR OLD TOFU
I’ve been thinking a lot about the “I wouldn’t touch the stuff” exchange. I like and respect this trainer and didn’t take offense, though I admit that for a few minutes I felt like I’d been caught wearing acid-washed jeans and listening to ABBA. No wonder this poor middle-aged lady can’t do a pull up. She still thinks it’s ok to eat tofu!
I do think it's ok to eat tofu. There are valid reasons some people avoid it (allergies, plant estrogens, distaste) and it's true that there's probably too much soy in the American diet. But that's not because we’re stuffing ourselves with bean curd. I came home from the gym wistful on behalf of old tofu, thrown over by all the cool people for sexy, expensive grass-fed ribeye steaks and bulletproof coffee. I picture tofu like the nice grandmother who carried baby Owen around on her back for a couple years when he went to the Cantonese family daycare. I picture bulletproof coffee like a hot biker in Spandex. He’s a lot more exciting, but can we really trust him? I mean, where was he when people werewere really, really hungry in 19th century China? I'm sure folks would have loved to start each day of crushing toil with a big cup of pastured butter, coconut oil, and top-quality caffeine.
But tofu was there. Tofu has pretty much always been there. And after her centuries of stalwart service to humankind, is it really becoming for wealthy Westerners to talk smack about the old gal and kick her to the curb? Poor old tofu. You’re not perfect, but I’ll still touch you.