Inventor of Tofurky and Owner of Turtle Island Foods

I first became a vegetarian in college. The year was 1973, and my first vegetarian meal was a bowl of lentils, rice, and onions from Frances Moore Lappe's classic Diet for a Small Planet. I was a teacher/naturalist in training so the environmental aspect of Lappe's book appealed to me. It just made sense that eating plants directly was smarter, more efficient, and better on our battered ecosystems. My mom was unimpressed. She grew up during the Depression and to her it all came down to protein. How was I going to get my protein, she would ask, whenever I called home from Ohio, where I was living. There were no natural foods stores then, but you could buy brightly colored rainbow bags of granola and yogurt, too, in the local head shop. Both items became a staple for me, along with boxes of vanilla wafers. Not a great diet but a start.

Flash forward to 1977 and I was working as a naturalist at outdoor schools in Oregon. My mom was still bugging me about protein, and the first rudimentary co-ops were forming in garages and old warehouses around Portland. I started buying soy grits and making them into soy burgers. Wandering the aisles of the supermarkets, I also was impressed to see entire shelves of yogurt and granola. I had been reading the books of Stephen Gaskin and his 1,700-acre farm in Tennessee. I believe they had over a thousand hippies living on The Farm, all of whom subsisted on a 'pure vegetarian' diet that was in reality vegan, but I never heard them use the word. They grew soybeans on The Farm and had sent people to the libraries of the National Institutes of Health in Washington, DC, to research how they could use all these soybeans. When I landed a naturalist job that summer in Tennessee on the banks of the Nolichucky River, I took a weekend visit to The Farm and brought back my first tempeh spores. My friends and I were living in tents then, but the weather was hot and humid, perfect for incubating tempeh in stainless steel pans outside. It was love at first bite, eating that first batch of tempeh on the banks of the Nolichucky with Silver Queen sweet corn and okara (soy pulp).

This is all background for 1980, which is when Turtle Island Soy Dairy was founded at Hope Co-op in Forest Grove, Oregon. Back then, the natural foods industry was in its infancy still. The dark, funky co-ops had moved out of the garages and some small stores like Natures in Portland were actually starting to buy new freezers and refrigerated cases. When I brought my first tempeh to the natural foods stores in Portland, it was very easy to get placement for all my three flavors: Soy Tempeh, Five Grain Tempeh, and Tempehroni, a sausage-shaped log of tempeh fermented with herbs and spices. In fact, the people working in the store were like, "Hey, what took you so long to come here? Now we can fill up our empty shelves with something!"

Acceptance from the public was slower and took a lot of education, demos, etc. In fact, during the '80s, soybeans did not really have a great reputation. There wasn't a lot of information (pre-Internet days here, so information traveled slowly, largely through collections of paper with words typed on them and bound together in something called 'books!') on the health benefits of soybeans and soyfoods in general. You could maybe buy tofu in a few enlightened supermarkets, but mostly water-packed tofu was only sold in natural foods stores. In the mid-80s the first Gardenburgers were produced and one of their big selling points was "soy free," which it said across the front of the box. This changed in the 1990s when more and more information became available about positive aspects of soybeans and vegetarian diets in general, culminating in the FDA allowing manufacturers to make health claims about soy protein.

Today, it's amazing to see the plethora of vegetarian products vying for shelf space in not only natural foods stores but grocery stores as well. It is many, many times easier to eat a healthy vegetarian or vegan diet than 25 years ago. The products just keep evolving and getting better and better. In 1980 you pretty much had to make your own vegetarian meals from scratch by a process involving ovens and stoves quaintly called 'cooking.' Now you just need a good freezer and microwave, and your options for quick, delicious tasty meals are literally too numerous to count.

Yet I am still puzzled by the strength of the meat industry and the fact that more about the staggering environmental and health impacts of carnivorous diets is not of greater concern. As I look forward, I believe that eventually these two issues will bubble up to the surface, pushing more and more people to change their diets. Something has got to give here. Best guess is that vegetarian foods will continue to improve in tastes and textures and gain larger and larger market share and acceptance. Meat raised from livestock may lose its dominant place in the American diet and may become an expensive ‘delicacy’ that only the rich can afford. I would imagine that some type of meat replacement (non-vegetarian) will be grown in labs on an industrial scale and compete with vegetarian meat replacements. This new synthetic meat may have some of the environmental/health concerns removed from it and actually will be marketed as an alternative to the vegetarian meat alternatives.

Evolution is a painstakingly slow process, but even though truth can be suppressed, spun, and twisted, eventually it all comes to the surface, and vegetarianism has too much truth and innate sensibility going for it not to bubble into an increasingly larger part of the world's diet in the years to come.

VEGETARIAN JOURNAL Issue Three 2007 < previous next >