Stinky Tofu, 100 Year Old Eggs, Pig’s Blood, and Pig Intestine in China Town Part 2

The Restaurant

Taiwan Cafe
34 Oxford Pl
Boston, MA 02111

The Taiwan Café offers delicious, traditional Taiwanese food at a great price.  Service is great, but it’s cash only, so remember to hit up the ATM before heading to Chinatown.

Ché’s Take

“Stinky Tofu” originally by Katrina Thorne.  “Lutefisk” originally by Karl Baron.  This picture follows the Attribution 2.0 Generic Creative Commons License.

My contributions to this blog, so far, have looked at why foods that we think of as unusual are actually the opposite. From cow’s feet to blood, I’ve argued that all of these foods are part of our shared past, if not as individuals, then as Americans. Stinky Tofu puts a kink in the whole thing. Taken as only a food, it’s true that stinky tofu is not a part of the more inclusive American tapestry. However, the fact that stinky tofu can be found in the United States at all, describes something much more important about why and how our country eats.

Stinky Tofu also has the distinction of being the only food that we’ve eaten that I really hate. I couldn’t finish it. Andrew is right. It tastes like s***, literally. I mean, I’ve never eaten s***, but if I had to guess, it would be my first and best guess. Another point that my blog deals with is the idea that strange foods are usually delicious. I now have found one that if I could avoid eating again, I would.

These two points, stinky tofu’s obscurity and its gross taste, are related. However, while the food contradicts the basic idea behind my blog posts, it points to a much greater cultural trend found throughout American eating. In We are What We Eat: ethnic food and the making of Americans, Donna Gabaccia points out that many people hold onto their family’s eating habits, even while other cultural traditions fade away. She calls this tendency “culinary conservatism.” For me, this is a daily fact. Russia and Mexico are four generations away, but they’re never closer than in the taste of kugel or pozole.

“Culinary conservatism” is the best way to look at stinky tofu. While Gabaccia doesn’t analyze this particular food, she does discuss an equally notorious delicacy, lutefisk. Lutefisk is a Scandinavian lye soaked preparation of fish, which has an unusual consistency and smell. Throughout the middle United States, Scandinavian churches host lutefisk dinners to raise money. By now, however, people of Scandinavian descent are not “the largest group of eaters at lutefisk suppers.” At these dinners lutefisk becomes a cultural calling card, but not because it tastes good. In fact, Gabaccia says that people are expected not to like lutefisk the first time they try it. Instead, it has been absorbed into American regional culture because of its culinary conservatism. As part of the process of the creation of American culture, culinary conservatism kept lutefisk preserved long enough to become part of the midwest’s cuisine.

The fact, then, that I can buy Stinky Tofu anywhere in the United States is very similar to lutefisk being sold throughout the Midwest. It is part of a very American tradition of culinary conservatism moving towards culinary integration. For example, twenty to thirty years ago, sushi was part of the world of gastronomy, eaten only by the few who could let go of the American taboo against eating raw meat. Now you can by it in nearly every supermarket. Even if stinky tofu now tastes like poo to me, a milder version may one day available in some shape or form to the average citizen. Stinky tofu, and my ability to try it, simply reinforces Gabaccia’s point that “What unites American eaters culturally is how we eat, not what eat.”  The “how” here is a love of the new as an integration of the old.


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