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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

A Tofu Impresario's View of the World

The frame around William Shurtleff's computer monitor is a maze of adhesive memo notes. Only one, a giddy-looking character in color, catches the eye.


"That's me,'' says Shurtleff, tapping his finger on the fool, a figure from tarot cards. "He's stepping off a cliff.''


Though Shurtleff is better grounded today, the man known as "the father of tofu'' has long been off the edge. In 1975, he published what the world of soy regarded as its manifesto, "The Book of Tofu.''


The white blob of soybean curd had found its cheerleader in a lanky, 34-year-old Stanford University engineering graduate. Twenty-one years later, Shurtleff is still tofu's biggest booster.


As director of Soyfoods Center, the world's only computerized database on soy and soy products, he has compiled more than 51,000 documents on soy, from 1100 B.C. to the present. It was started in 1976 by Shurtleff and artist Akiko Aoyagi, who would later become his wife.


The center occupies two rooms on the second floor of his modest home in an upper-middle-class neighborhood of Lafayette, east of San Francisco.


Mention "The Book of Tofu'' to aging baby boomers and it stirs up associations of meditation, the Esalen Institute, Frances Moore Lappe's "Diet for a Small Planet,'' whole grains and Tassajara -- and not without reason.


They're all influences that shaped Shurtleff's abstemious lifestyle. In vintage bermuda shorts and a simple button-down shirt, he looks much younger than his age. The rubber thongs he prefers for comfort pose a momentary embarrassment when he goes to a nice restaurant. His angular face seems too small for his eyes, which pop like blue flash bulbs.


He has few diversions other than swimming. His television is used only for taping news programs. His preferred mode of transportation is a second-hand girl's bicycle. He now uses the 17-year-old van, in which he and his wife crisscrossed the country to speak on soy foods and world hunger, to haul his son's Little League team and make bi-weekly trips to the science library at the University of California, Berkeley.


Since his divorce three years ago, he runs the center alone. His mission has changed little. He continues to promote soy as a key protein source. The tofu book evolved from his seven years in Japan, where he went initially to study meditation, then later to research soy. He and Aoyagi tested 1,200 recipes over the years and pared them to less than 500. She illustrated the book and the cover. They produced 62 books -- yes, 62. All, he says, are still in print.


The history of food, more than its pleasures, is what fascinates Shurtleff. He says he could be happy eating rice and vegetables for the rest of his life.


He acknowledges that tofu will never go completely mainstream: "It looks funny to Americans, and it is difficult to overcome the image of the white blob.''