Noe Valley Voice June 2001

Florence's Family Album:
A Tofu Tale in Seven Acts

By Florence Holub

Act I: The Leftovers

It all began in March. One of my man Leo's Stanford teaching assistants from the 1970s was coming to visit us. He, a student of the philosophy of India, and his bride, a yoga teacher, are both vegetarians. The challenge was before us: Could we serve them a lunch without a hint of meat? Leo hurried to Bell Market and ransacked the frozen food lockers, searching for a quick and easy dish to prepare. His final choice was an assortment of soy patties, and one big Amy's vegetable pizza.

The Sunday of their visit proved to be a sunny, pleasant day (especially since we discovered we were all Democrats and shared similar political views). We concurred on matters of taste as well, because our guests chose to forego the soy patties and eat the pizza!

The day ended happily and they departed, but we were left with a healthy stock of unfamiliar frozen food.

Act II: First Victim

About a week later, Leo's erudite friend Paul dropped in to discuss an ongoing project. Lunchtime arrived, but alas, our cupboard was bare. Our freezer, however, was still full. We entreated Paul to join us in reducing our hoard of tofu burgers, a task he accepted without question. In an attempt to gild the lily or at least spice up the soy, I brought out every taste enhancer and flavor improver we possessed: Worcestershire sauce, soy sauce, Tabasco, pickles, catsup, and assorted mustards. Paul used them all on his soy patty, and much to my surprise, seemed quite satisfied with the result. Perhaps this was because he had not eaten since early that morning.

Act III: Jonathan Decides to Throw a Party

At the end of the month, we drove down to Stanford for the opening of "The Gilded Age," a traveling exhibition of 500 American art treasures from the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C. (on display until June 18). After feasting our eyes on the impressive art works of our country, we retired to a reception area, where we had arranged to meet Paul and his lovely wife Ann. Soon we were joined by another talented couple, Jonathan and Leslie.

A spirited conversation ensued, and to my surprise, Paul began to extol the virtues of the tofu burgers he had tasted at our house. I shook my head no, and tried to present a more accurate assessment of the anemic patties, which we still had mounds of in our refrigerator. Leslie and Jonathan seemed amused, and as the party ended, they called out to us, "See you soon for tofu burgers!"

We laughed, then forgot all about it. A few days later, though, we heard a familiar deep baritone on our phone recording system: "Hello, this is not MCI or Cablevision, it is Jonathan, and I'm calling to talk about the tofu burger party that we are going to arrange.... We'd better invite you because it is at your house. We'd like to know when we could do it and also let you know that Mas (Leslie's landlord and our old friend) is willing to subject himself to the tofu burgers too...(background laughter).... Soy burgers are good, according to Leslie, so we are up for it anyway...oh, and Paul and Ann, too."

Leo called back promptly and with enthusiasm, because this might be our only chance to free our freezer from the pileup of meatless meat. When we learned that Mas could not (or possibly would not) attend, we invited Richard and Alvin, longtime readers of the Noe Valley Voice. Now eight brave souls were willing to give the tofu a try.

Act IV: A Painful Spill

With the choice of food settled, we turned our energies to party decor, and we were forced to look around our abode with a critical eye. The long table that had once served as our dining room table now serves as Leo's and my work table. So we cleared it of art supplies, papers, and other junk, and attacked its every chip, smudge, and fingerprint with cleanser and sponge.

After a few days, everything looked fairly presentable, except for the dark, round mahogany picture frame we had hung high up on the dining room wall. I thought that possibly a coat of white paint would tone it down, so I scaled our small stepladder with paint can and brush in hand. From there, I climbed up onto the sewing machine cabinet, and painted the frame in a jiffy. When I turned to step back down onto the step stool, however, it tipped over and I was catapulted across the room. Fortunately, I had no broken bones, only a swollen and tender left elbow, which had cushioned my fall. With my left arm immobilized in a sling, as a "righty" I knew I could carry on easily, but slowly, in preparing for Jonathan's party.

Act V: To Market, To Market

At Bell Market I gathered cabbages for the coleslaw with my good arm. Meanwhile, Leo selected a reserve supply of frozen vegetable patties, and found onion and kaiser rolls to wrap them in. In the dessert aisle we were delighted to discover the delectable "Mudd Pie" that we remembered so fondly from our pre­World War II days. The pie was big enough to serve eight amply, even if a few people didn't fill up on soy patties.

Back at home, I began to make ready the serving gear. It couldn't be breakable china -- I was still dropping everything because of my arm -- so I opted for heavy plastic dinnerware that would "bounce" if need be. In a big tray on the dining table I assembled the dishes, next to napkin-wrapped forks and knives, and rows of wine glasses. Then I covered the works with a tea towel so nothing would be disturbed until party day.

On Friday, with one day to go, I managed to shred the cabbage and mix the sweet-and-sour dressing. Surprisingly, everything seemed under control as T-Day approached.

Act VI: Tragedy Narrowly Averted

With the sun shining, we knew that we could not have chosen a lovelier day. As our guests arrived, they could see out the back door the lush growth of wisteria and lavender blossoms, gracefully cascading down the handrail leading from our porch. The deck chairs and side tables proved to be inviting, because that's where everyone chose to be for most of the day. Ann brought a bouquet of red camellias from her garden for the table. Then she kindly arranged them as well.

Leo and Paul took care of serving drinks while I operated like the one-armed paperhanger of yore, dispensing utensils, food, and advice in the kitchen. All of the ingredients for the fix-your-own tofu burgers were arrayed on the counter. Meanwhile, a pot of Aidell's fine sausages sat next to the coleslaw -- to satisfy closet carnivores like me.

Vegetarian or not, everyone lined up and dug in. Some people even had second helpings of the burgers!

After the Mudd Pie dessert, I served coffee, but I realized I had forgotten to bring out a cream pitcher. Without a second thought, I ascended the step stool again. Suddenly, Richard came rushing to my side. As I descended, he pointed to the bottom rung where I had placed, and forgotten, a slippery container. If he hadn't stopped me, I probably would have slipped and taken another fall, this time on my right arm, resulting in both arms in slings!

Well, tragedy was avoided, and it turned out a perfect day. The vocal highlight occurred when Leo played the recording of that priceless phone message that became the inspiration for the event. We all agreed that Jonathan really knows how to throw a party!

Act VII: The Mystery of the Round Frame

I just want to clarify why a picture frame was hanging high up on our dining room wall -- this was our answer to the energy crisis! Our downstairs bathroom on the other side of the dining room was vented, but had not a bit of natural light, which meant we always had to turn a light on. If only we could borrow a little light from the sunny dining room! So, we cut a hole in the bathroom wallboard and a matching one on the sunny dining room side. Then Leo connected the two by bridging the space with a white plastic bucket with the top and bottom cut off. After much hunting, we found two round picture frames and inserted circles of Plexiglas in each. These covered the raw edges and acted like a porthole, letting light into the darkness at last.

I wanted to add a decorative motif of some kind, so when I spotted a peacock feather in Leo's collection, I placed it behind the Plexiglas in one of the frames.

You might want to try this energy-saving idea yourself...or perhaps you'd like to try a frozen tofu burger!