Vegetarian Action

William Shurtleff - The Soy King

By Heather Gorn

If you've ever eaten soy, William Shurtleff has probably played a role in your life. The soybean has proven to be his life's calling, beginning with his penning of The Book of Tofu, the seminal book on soy in this country, more than 30 years ago.

Shurtleff traces the beginning of his journey toward vegetarianism to 1964, when he taught with Dr. Albert Schweitzer in Gabon. There was no discussion of vegetarianism nor was Dr. Schweitzer a vegetarian; however, at the age of 23, Shurtleff had learned a valuable lesson from Schweitzer's article, "The Ethics of Reverence for Life," and decided to live by this philosophy.

Upon returning to the U.S. to continue his studies at Stanford University, Shurtleff moved into the university's Peace and Liberation Commune. In 1968, the commune went vegetarian. "It seemed somehow to be in harmony with the spirit of the time," Shurtleff said, "and the meat in the fridge was so gross because people would leave it in there for weeks."

After completing his master's at Stanford, Shurtleff moved to Tassajara Zen Mountain Center near Big Sur in California to live a Zen Buddhist lifestyle. All meals there were vegetarian in accordance with the Buddhist belief that compassion must extend to all living beings. For the last year of his 2 ½ -year stay, Shurtleff served as a cook. Though becoming well-versed about food was not his primary objective, it would come to be a significant byproduct as he learned about tofu, miso, and other soy products and how to cook with them.

Then, Suzuki-roshi, the renowned Zen master with whom Shurtleff had gone to meditate at Tassajara, asked him to go to Japan with him so they could start a temple for the large numbers of Westerners interested in practicing Zen. Within a year of Shurtleff's arrival in Japan, Suzuki-roshi died of cancer.

"I found myself there, and the reason for my being there had vanished, and it never returned," Shurtleff said. "And at that point, my reason for being there changed into pursuing my interest in food." He asked to become an apprentice to a tofu master and began to learn the craft of making tofu.

It was during this time that Shurtleff and his future wife, Akiko Aoyagi, began work on The Book of Tofu. Almost immediately, an eager publisher surfaced and all the pieces fell into place. When one commits to an unselfish purpose, as with the book, Shurtleff observes "the universe becomes your servant and helper." The volume, which provides a history of the soybean and details ways to make many varieties of tofu, was a huge success. Shurtleff immediately began touring the U.S. in a van, doing approximately 70 presentations at universities and community centers. With every place he visited, a tofu shop opened in that town within a year.

Though not explicitly expressed, The Book of Tofu provided a great service in advancing arguments for vegetarianism: "I didn't make it clear what the purpose of the book was. The book was to help people become vegetarians, and yet that's not ever clearly stated in the book because I knew that it would turn off a lot of people. I wanted it to be for everybody."

A series of books followed that, including The Book of Miso, The Book of Tempeh, and the book he considers perhaps his most important book, Tofu & Soymilk Production . Though it only sold about 4,000 to 5,000 copies, it has been used to help start hundreds of soy-food businesses all over the world.

In the midst of these projects, Shurtleff established the Soyfoods Center, which serves as a bastion of information about soy and related issues. In 1980, he started writing The History of Soybeans and Soyfoods, and his "main work switched from being a writer to being a producer of a computerized database on two subjects: soyfoods and vegetarianism." With more than 75,000 records, the Soyfoods Center holds the best records on vegetarianism anywhere in the world. At some point, when the technology is more easily accessible, Shurtleff hopes to put this database on the Internet. But for now, as ever, he is working on an even more thorough history of the soybean.

Heather Gorn is an undergraduate at the University of Pennsylvania and a longtime volunteer with the VRG.