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Friday, November 25, 2011

Tofu or Not Tofu

I will say this about my Aunt Renee: she was a woman always willing to try something new. She was also a woman who would easily give anything the benefit of the doubt. These admirable characteristics were particularly evident one Thanksgiving a few years ago.

Being single, I am often a “free agent” for the traditional holidays, which has taken me to lots of friendly and entertaining places. I was always welcome at Aunt Renee’s table, and that is where I often chose to go. The particular Thanksgiving I am recalling, however, was a little different from her usual holiday spread.

The first reason it was different was that we spent the long holiday weekend in Flagler Beach, Florida. We drove down – two cars, three dogs, and all – to enjoy a last bit of southern warmth before the Philly winter set in.

The second reason it was different was that Aunt Renee decided we would have a vegetarian Thanksgiving. This decision was to honor her daughter, my cousin, who had recently chosen a cruelty-free lifestyle. My aunt, always open-minded, asked if we would like to try a tofu turkey instead of a traditional one. We would still have all the trimmings of course. Just no bird.

Maybe our untraditional environs gave us all willing spirits, but we agreed to give it a try. I mean, how bad could it be?

Now, there are all kinds of tofu turkey on the market. There is even one molded into the shape of a real turkey – head, tail and all.

I really do not remember which brand we bought or what kind it was supposed to be. I easily recall the startled look on Aunt Renee’s face when she pulled it out of its wrapper: a rather large, white ball with a pliable consistency that did not even attempt to resemble any turkey to which she was accustomed.

She did have a good laugh at its four tempeh “drumsticks.” Our tofu turkey also came with a kind of gravy that promised to turn our white ball “golden brown.” The good news: it would need to be in the oven hardly any time at all. So, our alternative feast would be saving energy as well as saving animals.

Soon, Aunt Renee’s kitchen filled with the aromas of Thanksgiving: herb stuffing, homemade cranberry relish, creamed spinach, mashed potatoes, and her myriad pies. The only aroma absent was that of a roasting bird. To be honest, we barely missed it. When the table was set and laid out for dinner, though, we could have easily missed our tofu turkey, for the vegetarian impostor barely took up any room at all. Nor did its “gravy” live up to its bold promise: our little tofu ball was nearly as pale coming out of the oven as it had been going in.

Not long after that, the TV show “Everybody Loves Raymond” aired a suspiciously familiar episode about a tofu turkey. At this time of year, you can catch it on YouTube. I can tell you with first person certainty that episode does not even come close to the reaction around Aunt Renee’s Thanksgiving table. While it is difficult to put into words the startled/dismayed/surprised reactions that came to our faces almost simultaneously with those first bites, it is not difficult to describe the taste. If you have ever chewed on the pink eraser at the end of a No. 2 pencil, you know exactly how our vegetarian experiment turned out. Aunt Renee, with her uncanny knack for capturing the moment, merely exclaimed:

“Well, I certainly never expected it to taste like this!”

Which was our cue to put down our forks in tinkly unison.

I do not recall any second bites, let alone second helpings. The tempeh drumsticks were small consolation (I think we gave them to the dogs).

I will hand it to Aunt Renee, though. She was always one to try anything once. And once was all the chance she gave that tofu turkey.

For which we are truly thankful.

Photos courtesy of



  1. Thanks, Mary, for the laugh. Though I am a fan of tofu, I am not a fan of tofu trying to masquerade as meat. Perhaps there's a lesson here? Be yourself, tofu. You're lovely just as you are, without any crazy gravy or drumsticks. You just need a proper context of a stir fry or soup.

  2. Aunt Renee sounds like a fun person to break bread with no matter what the occasion. I laughed out loud at the pink eraser description. I always wonder why the vegetarian food makers try to fake tofu and other soy products as meat. As Julie wrote, it really is good in its own character. It was a unique Thanksgiving story that told the tale of family.

  3. I remember the taste of those eraseers like I chewed on one yesterday.
    funny, the one time Jim and I spent Thanksgiving in Florida we didn't have real turkey either. After smelling the turkey roasting all day in the next-door condo, we went out to dinner and the restaurant was out of turkey! how do you run out of turkey on Thanksgiving?

  4. Although I've heard many Aunt Reenie stories over the years, I don't recall that one. It's just as apt a description of "Reen" as any of the others I do remember hearing, though. I hope your pastrami turkey sandwich this year was much better than your Tofurkey in Florida many years ago.

    One question, though. if you wanted a cruelty-free holiday, why did the DOGS get stuck with the tempeh drumsticks?! ;-)