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Vol. 172, No. 1; July 1987

The day the foreigner came began as had many others in the lives of the Sun brothers, or, for that matter, in those of their father and grandfather. At three that morning they had let themselves into their one-room doufu shop, one of ten that prepared bean curd, the "vegetable meat" made from soybeans, for the villagers of Chao Lang near Shanghai. In the middle of the floor bulked large, dark ceramic jars full of straw-colored beans that had been left soaking overnight. The two brothers ladled the beans into a mechanical crusher, strained the mash, poured the filtrate into an iron pan set in the top of a coal stove, brought it to a boil, ladled it into another jar, and added a coagulant salt.

After an hour, when the coagulant had taken effect, they ladled the thicked fluid into frames draped with cheese-cloth, folded the cheesecloth around the material, squeezed whey out of the frames with weights, and opened their shop window. As the villagers began to arrive to buy their daily supplies, beginning at about 6 a.m., they turned the blocks of doufu, one by one, out of their frames and sliced them up into bricks of close to a pound each.

On this particular morning, around ten, the Suns heard a burst of crowd noise, a hubbub of comment and exclamation, moving in their direction.

Then a wave of humanity washed into their shop. At its head were the mayor of Chao Lang, an official from the China National Technical Import Corporation, and a foreign dignitary of some sort, a Westerner, who began pestering them with one question after another. When did they get up? What did they do first?

Behind this party of visitors the citizens of Chao Lang gathered in concentric generations. The youngest and boldest crowded right into the shop and stood among the visitors, staring up at them and smiling brilliantly. Behind them, in the door and spilling out into the street, were the teenagers, and peering over their heads, the parents and grandparents. Back inside the shop the foreigner was still grilling the Suns. "So how long have you been making bean curd?" he asked.

How long? Sun Qing-fu stared thoughtfully at the question. A long time, he said, shaking his head. Then he broke into laughter. Yes, indeed. A very long time. Then the children, who had been following the questions and answers relayed by the interpreter, started laughing themselves. "What did the foreign guest say?" the teenagers asked. "He asked how long we've been making doufu!" And then the teenagers laughed, and passed the remark to the next generation behind. There must have been dozens of villagers outside, for those inside could hear laughter spreading up and down the streets of Chao Lang for minutes afterward.

Doufu, the Chinese name for bean curd, has been made in China, where it was invented, for about 2000 years. It is the most important of the foods prepared in the East from the soybean, that remarkable vegetable that not only allows China to feed a quarter of the world's population on a tenth of its arable land, but is also a rock on which the Western diet is built and a major hope for averting world famine.

I had traveled to China in part because the whole story began here, at least 3000 years ago, when farmers in the eastern half of northern China started planting the black or brown seeds of a wild recumbent vine. Why they did this is unclear; plants that lie on the ground are hard to cultivate, and the seeds of the wild soybean are tiny, hard, and unless properly prepared, indigestible. Whatever the reasons, the farmers persevered, and evidence suggests that by 1100B.C. the soybean had been taught to grow straight up and bear larger, more useful seeds. These changes were sufficient to add the bean to the list of domesticated plants.

The new crop arrived at the right time. The bean is wonderfully abundant in protein of the highest quality, and, within limits, grows well in soils too depleted to support other crops. The soybean plant supports colonies of microorganisms that return rent in the form of soil-enriching nitrogen; this was an important point in civilization that had been farming many of the same fields for thousands of years.

The enthusiasm farmers had for their new crop is suggested by some of the names given different varieties: Great Treasure, Brings Happiness, Yellow Jewel, Heaven's Bird.

Over the next several hundred years the soybean spread from its center of domestication to become a staple of the Chinese people. As it did, the third virtue of the bean (together with high food value and ease of production) appeared - a magic versatility. Dozens of different forms of food were developed from it, of which the most important were soybean sprouts, steamed green beans, roasted soy nuts, soy milk, soy sauce, miso (a fermented soybean paste), soybean oil, tempeh (a fermented soybean cake apparently invented in Indonesia), soy flour, and of course, doufu, which is the basis for dozens of other soy foods.

I learned all this later, long after I had returned from amusing the people of Chao Lang. At one point during my education, a citizen of Shanghai, an English teacher named Johnny Tong, explained what had happened. "The Chinese consider doufu very common," he said. "Valued, but common. For instance, in our stories a bean curd seller is always a poor man with a good heart. We refer to a girl who is beautiful but poor as doufu-xishi, 'a bean curd beauty.' When a man is treating a woman cheaply, taking her for granted, we say he is just 'eating her doufu.'" What amused the villagers, he suggested, was that I seemed all agog over doufu, as if it were some sort of high-tech breakthrough.

As we talked, walking through the corridors of plane trees that line the streets of Shanghai, we would pass through the outdoor markets where, under the new economic policies of China, individuals were allowed to sell products of their own manufacture. Sometimes we would see a doufu seller, back on the streets after all these years, and stop to chat. "How's business?" I would ask. "Terrible," I would hear. "I have to stand here all day. Who can compete with state stores?" (The state stores sold a cheaper, but less tasty, version.) But Tong, after some calculations, advised me that the sellers were doing very well indeed.

In the last half of the first millennium A.D., the Japanese upper classes became slavish Sinophiles and imported many aspects of Chinese culture - writing characters, law codes, political institutions, and most important, Buddhism. Doufu, called tofu in Japan - and now elsewhere - arrived as one of the things associated with the new religion. (By this time the soybean itself had been cultivated in Japan for several hundred years.)

Buddhist monks are strict vegetarians, and doufu had become an important food in Chinese monastaries. For several centuries Buddhism was an upper-class religion in Japan; these social associations pushed the development of tofu and its associated soy foods in a different direction than in China.

The Chinese have developed dozens of different ways of reprocessing doufu, most of which change the texture and/or the taste of the food radically. They press, shred, slice and marinate, steam, smoke, deep-fry, ferment, and salt-dry it, often combining more than one process on this list.

In general, Japanese cuisine preserves the simplicity of tofu, its subtle taste, custardy texture, and "dazzling white robes", in the phrase of a sixth-century monk, in dishes of awe-inspiring elegance. The Japanese do some processing: Dried-frozen tofu, spongy and highly flavor-absorbent, is a favorite. Tofu simmered with meat, vegetables, and noodles in sukiyaki. Still, the difference in emphasis is unmistakable.

In Kyoto I asked restaurant manager Taku Watabe about Japanese cooking and soy foods. "The summers are very hot here," he said, embarking on an apparently unrelated subject, "and very humid. Our winters are bitter. In the eighth century our poets considered the meaning of these extremes and counseled acceptance; to open oneself to nature and let it prevade your life."

In February Watabe might serve ozumi-dofu, a cube of tofu mantled in a bed of rice. Not all the ways of eating tofu relate to the seasons, Watabe said, but many do.

Perhaps the most dramatic illustration I found of Watabe's point was encountered in the Yachiyo Honten restaurant near Nagoya. Yachiyo Honten lies in Okazaki Park, on the grounds of the castle in which Tokugawa Ieyasu, the famous shogun who unified Japan, was born. The restaurant itself sits on a corner defined by a bend in the moat that once girdled the castle. Someone entering one of the small dining rooms and rolling back the wide wall screens will find himself floating eye to eye with the crowns of the maples, oaks, and alders that now grows out of the moat. And if he visit on a brilliant afternoon in October, as I did, the light flooding into the room will seem to buoy it up like a balloon and send it soaring through the color burst of autumn foliage.

The chef, Teiichi Nakagawa, is a young man with a broad experience of the world; he has eaten at, and was unimpressed by, Maxim's in Paris. "Art is limited," he began, in a tone that made it clear that he was making no idle observation but reciting the core of his faith as a cook, "but the taste of nature is unlimited. No matter how a dish is prepared, if it is served and eaten often enough, it will no longer convey nature's taste. The preparation of food changes so as to keep people open to the taste of nature."

He then brought in a dish composed of pieces of tofu that had been cut to a thickness of about one-third of an inch. Sheets of seaweeds of different colors - blood orange, golden brown - had been pressed on the tofu tiles, which were then cut to the shapes of maple and sycamore leaves. Finally, these were arranged over a pile of silver fibers pulled from a Chinese radish, which were teased up from the tofu forms. The effect achieved was that of a heap of autumn leaves that had been raked casually into a pile and set on fire.

The first public notice of the arrival of soybeans in the West was made by the great Swedish biologist Carolus Linnaeus, who in 1737 included them in an inventory of plants grown in a garden in Holland. They were introduced to the New World by Samuel Bowen, a merchant who brought seeds back from China in 1765. For the next century the soybean was little more than a botanical curiosity. Then, in 1880, French scientists reported that soybeans, unlike other beans, contain virtually no starch, from which the body manufactures sugar, and recommended they be used in diabetic diets.

This was the first of a series of discoveries made by the new profession of nutrition as it examined and analyzed Glycine max, the soybean. A second come 20 years later, when the importance of proteins began to be understood: Amazingly, the soybean was found to have an even higher protein content than lean beef.

Over the next several decades nutritionists explored such things as digestibility, amino acids, vitamin and mineral intake, alkaline-acidic balance, allergenicity, salt, fat, cholesterol, metabolic waste products, and hormone and antibiotics. Each time a new issue arose, someone would check how the soybean rated, and time and again the bean would be shown to do very well compared with other foods. However, as impressive as these discoveries might have been to nutritionists, they triggered no great consumer demand in the West.

Ironically, this rejection presaged one of the more dramatic chapters in the history of the bean, as I found out in Lauderdale County in southwest Tennessee, part of one of the most productive soybean farmlands in the world. There I met Page Box Jr., a former president of the Tennessee Soybean Association. Soybeans are not a new crop in Lauderdale County, he told me. For decades farmers had grown the bean for fodder, harvesting the whole plant, letting it dry, and then fedding it to their livestock. But after World War II everything changed. Box suggested we drive over and meet a gentleman named Fullen, who had stood as close as anyone to what happened then.

The land we drove through was as flat as an airport apron. It seemed only about three inches higher than the Mississippi River; flooding, Box said, was a constant threat. About half of the bare handful of houses we passed were raised on thick stilts, and from a distance they seemed to be walking across the fields. "Last big flood we had," Box said, driving into the Fullens' place, "I came down here in my boat, tied up to the porch, and stepped right out." The porch was a good five feet off the ground.

Jim Fullen and his sons, Steve and Jimmy, farmed about 5,000 acres of soybeans in partnership with Box. Our meeting had a somber mood. The price of soybeans in relation to the cost of production was way down, and soybean farmers were under serious financial pressure. Many - one estimate I heard was one third - were not expected to make it, though Fullens themselves thought that they would.

"The glamour's gone from the Cinderella crop," Jimmy Fullen said, looking out his window. "The Cinderella crop?" I asked.

Forty years ago, I was told, the major crop in Lauderdale County was cotton, though a lot of corn and other vegetables were grown as well. A fair amount of livestock was raised, and there was a good lumber industry. Soybeans were attended to only when the cash crops had been taken care of.

After the Second World War two things changed. Historically, China had been a major supplier of soybeans to the world market.

However, the course of postwar politics and the difficulties experienced by the Chinese in recovering from wartime devastation prevented the restoration of prewar trade relations with the West. The world soybean market needed a new source of supply, and the American farmer successfully stepped into the position.

Second, and far more important, postwar affluence sent the developed world on a binge of meat eating. By 1973 per capita consumption of chicken had increased by factors of 2, 4 and 15 in the US, Europe and Japan respectively. Supplies of the traditional source of protein in livestock feed - fish meal and scraps from meat-processing plants - were inadequate to meet these increases in demand. The high food value of the soybean made it a natural candidate. The bean was tested and with a few modifications and supplements met the need perfectly, not only for chickens and hogs, but also for animals as diverse as mink, foxes, shrimp, catfish, eels, trout, bears (in zoos), and even bees and silkworms.

Between 1945 and 1985, as the effects of these changes were felt, the US soybean harvest increased in volume 11 times. The bean became the farmer's most important cash crop and the country's leading agricultural export - in 1986 the United Sates exported 3.7 billion dollars' worth of soybeans.

This was why it was called the Cinderella crop. A poor relation that had always been given the leftovers in land and time had become "gold from the soil." Further - the Fullens stressed this point - because it had been such an unimportant crop during the New Deal, there were no acreage restrictions on the bean, as there were on cotton and corn. Every farmer could plant as much of it as he liked. Livestock was cleared out, pastures plowed under, and acreage switched away from cotton and corn.

Soybean agriculture is not that different from that of other commodities, the Fullens said, but there are some differences. As soybean acreage grew, those differences became more important. For one, soybean agriculture is less labor-intensive than other crops, especially cotton.

The bean is less finicky both to grow and handle, which means that more of the agricultural labor can be done by machine. At the time - the 1950s and '60s - this was just one more reason to make the switch, since farm labor was getting scarce anyway.

But the Fullens, as do other farmers I spoke to, believe that some time cause and effect changed places, and that the switch to the bean itself helped depopulate the region. Earlier a farmer named M.C. Bevis had told me flatly: "Soybeans changed the structure of the population down here. And the life-style." And now, Jimmy Fullen added, "It's deserted compared to the way it was when cotton was here."

The ease with which the soybean grew on marginal ground meant that every acre could be devoted to it. "Every turnrow, every tree, every bush was pushed out," Steve Fullen said. The oak trees went down. "I cleared 10,000 acres myself," Jim Fullen added. "Soybeans made this county, so far as the land goes." Planting ground that used to be covered by trees and bush and pasture was remunerative then, but it carried a hidden cost, in that there were fewer roots to hold down the soil. Farmer were told by soil engineers that 40 tons of topsoil an acre was being washed into the Mississippi every year. "This is the most eroded county in the state right here," Steve said. "But I don't see what can be done about it," his brother added. "Farmers don't have the money to put those safeguards back in."

In the early 1980s the price of the dollar rose dramatically. Since a foreigner wishing to buy from an American producer has to pay in dollars, this indirectly increased the price of the soybean in foreign markets, which has been buying half the harvest. At the same time, large new competitors, especially in South America (Brazil now earns nearly as much from soybeans as from coffee), started to appear.

These developments depressed soybean prices perilously close to cost - below cost, in the case of many American farmers. Most people I spoke to thought the result would be that the number of people living and working on the land would decline still further.

Once a soybean graduates from the farm, it is almost always taken to a processing plant, where its oil is removed. (The natural soybean tends to make livestock a little flabby.) The extracted oil - far more than most of us imagine - is turned into foods such as margarine, mayonnaise, shortening, and salad dressings. Virtually all of the oils and fats used in prepared dressings is soy oil, as is 83 percent of that used in margarine, 80 perfect of that used in salad and cooking oils, and 62 percent of that in shortening. The average American consumes almost six gallons of soy oil a year, or 40 percent of total annual fat and oil intake.

Meanwhile, the rest of the bean is shipped off to feedlots and poultry producers to feed animals that themselves will eventually end up in supermarkets. Thus over the last 30 years the soybean has become as important to the Western diet as to that of the East. If some virus were to kill off the world crop, the peoples of both hemispheres would find their diet drastically altered. The only difference is that in the West the bean is invisible. Even pure soy oil is usually sold as "vegetable oil."

For the last few decades this obliviousness to the value of the soybean has irritated and stimulated a number of crusaders, bean activists who see it as the solution to some critical human problem. Perhaps the most famous was Henry Ford, who believed that the future of the country depended on farmer's becoming producers of industrial goods, and that the soybean was ideal for this partnership. At one point he said his goal was to "grow cars rather than mine them." Ford tried to make a dent in the general public indifference with a number of public relations spectacles, in the most famous of which he attacked an auto body made of soybean based plastic with an ax to demonstrate its resilience.

Ford's dream might seem stranger now than it did then. In his day, in the US, the soybean was not a food but an industrial commodity. Soybean oil was used to make glycerine, soft soaps, paint, linoleum, varnishes, enamel, waterproof goods, oilcloth, rubber substitutes, artificial petroleum, and ink. Soybean meal was used as a low-cost plywood adhesive. At Ford's direction the laboratories of the Ford Motor Company discovered several more industrial uses for the soybean. By 1935 Ford was squeezing a full bushel of beans into the manufacture of each Ford car. But after the war, petroleum derivatives successfully invaded most of those markets, and today only a tiny fraction of the soybean crop goes to industry.

William Shurtleff and his wife, Akiko, stand in this innovative tradition, although they are concerned with a different problem. In 1976 they founded the Soyfoods Center in Lafayette, California, in the belief that beneath the news stories of famines and relief efforts lay a more sinister problem: a general deterioration in the diet of the peoples of the underdeveloped world, especially in protein. "Many believe that worldwide agricultural output has failed to keep pace with the increase in population," Shurtleff says. "This is not true. The real problem has been the postwar transition, all across the West, to a meat-centered diet.

"During the war, meat was in short supply, even in this country, and the government promoted the soybean as a substitute, touting its high protein content and low cost. But after the war, interest in soy foods dropped off, apparently because people continued to identify them with wartime deprivation and the government's emphasis on good nutrition. The American public went back to eating meat."

But animals are very inefficient processors of protein, he explained. To grow enough chicken meat to make up the minimum daily requirement for aone human, those chickens must first have been given enough protein in their feed to satisfy the minimum requirement for six people. With beef it's the minmum requirement for 15 people.

Shurtleff, a tall man, whippy as a blackboard pointer, talks glowingly of what he sees as a swing to soyfoods by a new, postwar generation: Tofu and miso are in more and more supermarkets; tempeh sales are up 33 percent. One hundred and fifty new tofu plants have been started in the US since 1975. the most successful soy food ever introduced in the West has been tofu "ice cream", which has grown more than 600 percent in sales over the past two years. (By the summer of 1986 there were 45 brands on the market.)

It was easy, listening to these impressive statistics, to forget that the per capita consumption of tofu and other soy foods in the United States is still less than one percent that of meat.

Directly or indirectly, the soybean has become central to the diets of both the East and West. For instance, soy milk, the liquid left after beans have been crushed in hot water and strained, is a widely consumed beverage in the East (it's as popular as Coca-Cola in Hong Kong).

But the most important remaining question concerns the soybean's potential to feed the peoples of the Third World. In the mid 1970's a team of nutritionists from the United Nations launched a test case when they found, in a survey of Sri Lanka, that as many as half of the children were suffering from some degree of protein deficiency. The government decided to remedy this condition by introducing soya, as it calls soybeans, into the national diet.

This is no simple endeavour. Foreign-currency restrictions prevented Sri Lanka from just importing a lot of finished soy foods. "We had to organize an entire industry right across the board," Dr. H.M.E. Herath, deputy director of horticulture, said, "from growing the seed to recipe preparation." Further, the soybean is native to the temperate zone, and most of the techniques developed for its utilization, from agriculture through storage and processing to food preparation, assume a cooler, drier climate. And last, virtually no one in Sri Lanka had ever seen soybeans or soy foods before. Everything had to be learned from scratch.

The first step, said Dr. M.H.J.P. Fernando, deputy director of agriculture for research, was to find which of the thousands of varieties of soybeans grew best under tropical condition. The Sri Lankans received expertise from the International Soybean Program at the University nof Illinois, an organization set up to help Third World countries adapt the soybean to their needs.

"One of the government's ideas of how to use soya was to mix it with existing foods," Dr. Herath said. "Make it an invisible additive, so no one would know it was there. We launched a campaign to fortify all the flour milled in the country with 5 percent soy flour. This was one of our biggest plans." Unfortunately, Sri Lanka's largest mill refused to participate in the program.

The staff of the island nation's Soyabean Foods Research Centre regrouped and developed another plan - to persuade citizens to substitute soya for an existing food. In this case, they hope to substitute it for coconut milk, which is widely used as a cooking medium. "Coconuts are a land-intensive and unpredictable crop," said S. Pathiravitana, editor of Soyanews. "The government hoped to wean the people from dependence on them while also improving their diets."

"The price of a coconut went up from one rupee to five," Cecil Dharmasena, director of the research center, recalled. "Rajasoya was very successful. Everybody started using it. The factory hired a second shift and began planning a third. Then coconut prices began to slip; they went down to two and a half rupees, and back up to three - still a lot more expensive than they had been, but suddenly people just started paying the higher prices. Sales of Rajasoya plummeted. We went to one shift, two days a week." There are Sri Lankans, I was told, who prefer soy-milk powder to coconut milk, finding the latter too heavy and greasy, but obviously they are a minority. The research center subsequently develop coconut-soy blends that native Sri Lankans (taste tests seem to show) find more acceptable, but so far no entrepreneurs have been willing to back them in the marketplace.

The campaign to win the hearts and minds of Sri Lankans for soybean continues. The Rajasoya factory is again working near full capacity, and the government is planning to supply schoolchildren with a fresh soy beverage everyday. One Muslim trader I spoke to waved away the idea that the soybean had failed in Sri Lanka. There were still lots of possibilities, he said. "This is a Buddhist country," he reminded me. "We eat meat, but we feel guilty about it."

Another reason why soya might yet succeed in Sri Lanka, at least over the long term, is that the local farmer continue to grow the bean, and in increasing volume. "Who buys your beans? The government?" I asked the farmers. No, I was told, private traders. "And who do they sell them to?" Nobody seemed to know, so, together with Pathiravitana, I visited the Pettah on Old Moor Street in Colombo, headquarters to the traders of Sri Lanka.

There, awayt from the noisy, colorful circus that is the traffic of downtown Colombo, we went from stall to stall, and soon the source of this mysterious increase in demand became clear: Poultry growers were buying the beans. The livestock industry had arrived in Sri Lanka, and it was thriving. "The old ways are certainly breaking down," signed Pathiravitana, referring to the Buddhist strictures against eating flesh. For myself, I was struck at finding a case in which livestock feed was apparently playing a positive role in the development of soy foods by stabilizing the market for the farmer while the soy-foods industry experimented with different approaches for human comestibles.

Spurred to greater efforts by initial setbacks in Sri Lanka's soybean campaigns, researchers have come up with a variety of soy products, including a coffee "extender", breakfast cereal-like soybean flakes, and increasingly popular vegetarian "Soyameat," devoid of the characteristic legume taste that marked - and doomed - earlier substitutes. The experts now cite Sri Lanka's program as a model for other developing nations, noting that consumption of the nutritious, all-purpose bean has significantly increased in the past five year.

And that's not just chicken feed.

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