A Brief History of Conservatives Using Tofu-Eating as an Insult

Ted Cruz's recent remarks come from a long line of right-wingers mocking people for eating soy products.

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Sep 17 2018, 8:23pm

Photos via Getty Images

On Tuesday of last week, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) spoke to reporters about the challenges facing Republican senators in this year’s rapidly approaching midterm elections. “We know this is going to be a very challenging election,” he said, citing the “dead-even” contests in nine states. “All of them [are] too close to call and every one of them is like a knife fight in an alley. It’s just a brawl in every one of those places.”

One of the brawls he specifically mentioned was the increasingly tight race in Texas, between Republican incumbent Ted Cruz and his Democratic challenger Beto O’Rourke. But rather than worry about figurative knife fights, Cruz is more concerned about plant-based proteins.

During a rally in Katy, Texas, Cruz said that O’Rourke had attracted the attention of members of “the extreme left” from other states, who were willing to empty their pockets to help the Democrat win. “We are seeing tens of millions of dollars flooding into the state of Texas from liberals all over the country who desperately want to turn the state of Texas blue,” Cruz said. “They want us to be just like California, right down to tofu and silicon and dyed hair.”

Cruz’s remarks were met with amusement and confusion because oh no not tofu that would be the worst. First, neither hair dye nor silicon are unique to California, and as MarketWatch pointed out, Texas is the home to tech giants Texas Instruments, Dell Inc., and Intel—the state actually has more tech, or "silicon," manufacturing jobs than Cruz’s Pacific coast nemesis. (Perhaps he meant silicone, and was referencing Los Angeles' reputation as a hotspot for plastic surgery.) Cruz also seems to have forgotten that the United States is the world’s largest producer of soybeans, the base ingredient of tofu, and soy is the country’s second-biggest crop, just behind corn. (Actually, Texas’s neighbor Arkansas is America’s leading producer of edamame, but for some reason Cruz isn’t accusing O’Rourke’s supporters of turning Texas into that state).

Although ‘soy boy’ is new to the lexicon (except when it comes to a 40-year-old New York-based brand of soy foods) conservative pundits, cartoonists, and columnists have fallen back on tofu as a specific way to insult liberals for at least the past decade-plus.

As for tofu and other soy-based products, don’t tell Ted (because he may well kill you and then send the police a cryptic letter about your death), but sales are up everywhere. According to research conducted by Nielsen this time last year, 23 percent of consumers want more plant-based proteins on the shelves, 39 percent of US consumers said they were “actively trying to incorporate more plant-based foods into their diets,” and sales of plant-based foods increased by 14.7 percent in the 52-week period between July 2016 and July 2017.

Cruz is far from the first person to use tofu or ‘tofu-eating’ as an insult, especially to illustrate the cultural and ideological differences between meat-and-potatoes conservatives (which in itself is another stereotype) and their fussier liberal counterparts. Soy has become part of one of the alt-right’s go-to insults for men who are also deemed to be “cucks,” or at least cuck-adjacent.

According to Know Your Meme, the first use of “soy boy” appeared on 4Chan last April, and the terms has since been defined on Urban Dictionary as a male “who completely and utterly lacks all necessary masculine qualities.” Their rationale is two-fold: First, it’s derived from the well-debunked myth that—in the words of Men’s Journal—soy is a “a man boob–giving, estrogen-bestowing testosterone-killer.” (Despite the language, the magazine concluded that “men shouldn’t worry” about consuming soy products, and that it wouldn’t negatively affect their muscle growth or their testosterone levels). Secondly, it’s based on the perception that drinking soy milk or opting for soy over beef is an emasculating self-own, or that it’s feminine and just less all-around manly than, like, chugging a gallon of whole milk.

Although ‘soy boy’ is new to the lexicon (except when it comes to a 40-year-old New York-based brand of soy foods) conservative pundits, cartoonists, and columnists have fallen back on tofu as a specific way to insult liberals for at least the past decade-plus:

In 2012, Kid Rock and Sean Penn did a weird, jingoistic, Freaky Friday-ish “public service film” that begins with a shirtless Rock insulting Penn as a “tofu-munching, welfare-loving, Prius-driving, Obama-sucking, tree hugging, whale-saving, gay marriage-fantasizing, big government voting, PETA-chasing, Oprah Winfrey-masturbating, flag-burning, socialist, ACLU, whiny ass granola-crat.” Less than 10 minutes later, they’ve realized that they do have some things in common, like being American, appreciating the US military, and enjoying Freedom. They become friends during a montage that involves the two of them applauding at a gay wedding and riding bikes without helmets, and Penn helpfully holds a beach toy so Rock can piss into it. LET FREEDOM RING.

In a 2007 column called “Let Them Eat Tofu,” Ann Coulter borrowed from Marie Antoinette in a bonkers piece about liberals being disconnected from real America, because they believe in the “insane, psychotic idea” of climate change. “Liberals have always had a thing about eliminating humans,” she wrote. “Stalin wanted to eliminate the kulaks and Ukrainians, vegetarian atheist Adolf Hitler wanted to eliminate the Jews, Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger wanted to eliminate poor blacks, and population-control guru Paul Ehrlich wants to eliminate all humans.” Cool story.

That same sentiment, “Let Them Eat Tofu,” was used in an editorial cartoon that appeared before the 2012 presidential election. “Michelle [Obama] Antoinette” was illustrated offering a plate of tofu to the peasants below her royal tower, implying again that the Obamas were out of touch with everyday Americans—or that the former First Lady was attempting to force healthier food options onto an unsuspecting or unwilling populace.

And in 2004, your dad’s favorite columnist Dave Barry also suggested that ‘tofu-eating’ was how red state residents thought of their blue state neighbors. “Do we truly believe that [...] all blue-state residents are godless, unpatriotic, pierced-nosed, Volvo-driving, France-loving, left-wing communist, latte-sucking, tofu-chomping, holistic-wacko, neurotic, vegan, weenie perverts?” Much like Penn and Rock, Barry suggests that Americans need to focus on the things they have in common instead of their differences, if we’re ever going to “join together and heal our national rift.” (Here’s where we pause to look around at...everything before asking “How’s that going, Dave?”)

California contributed to making tofu both widely available and widely accepted, and when that’s combined with the state’s 50-plus-year reputation as the destination for self-described free spirits, hippies, and those who have flown their freak flags since the Grateful Dead were just a bunch of Haight-Ashbury housemates, ‘tofu eater’ seems to have become an overlapping pejorative shorthand for liberals or “kooks”—or Texans who would consider voting for an upstart Democrat.

(As an un-political aside, in 2016, the always-combative former Oasis frontman Liam Gallagher used tofu to mock his brother Noel’s “common man” persona: “He’s in one of his really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really big houses,” Liam told Sky News. “Probably eatin’ tofu while havin’ a fuckin’ face peel, isn’t that right, man of the people?”)

But why has tofu been the one edible representation of being liberal, out-of-touch, elitist, or—WORST OF ALL—Californian? Possibly because of how and where the food was introduced to the wider United States. Although there was some interest in soybeans and soy-related foods during World War II, Americans quickly started downing meat and dairy after the conflict ended. Tofu production never stopped, although its scope was largely limited to Asian immigrants and Asian-Americans. According to the Soyinfo Center’s exhaustive history, by 1975, there were 55 tofu companies in the United States, but they were all owned by Asian-Americans. Perhaps surprisingly, when the first non-Asian-Americans started to open their own tofu shops (or “soy dairies”), they were scattered from Maine to Miami to Corvallis, Oregon; the first non-commercial community shop was in Tennessee.

But the Golden State was the home of many of the companies, grocery outlets and restaurants that helped push it into the mainstream, promoting it as a significant part of a healthy diet and not something you’d just eat when red meat was being rationed. The state was the home to the first grocery store that put tofu on its shelves, the first all-soy deli, the first tofu burgers, the first tofu distributor, and the then-San Francisco-based Trader Vic’s restaurant chain was one of the first to advertise tofu prominently on its menus and promo materials.

California contributed to making tofu both widely available and widely accepted, and when that’s combined with the state’s 50-plus-year reputation as the destination for self-described free spirits, hippies, and those who have flown their freak flags since the Grateful Dead were just a bunch of Haight-Ashbury housemates, ‘tofu eater’ seems to have become an overlapping pejorative shorthand for liberals or “kooks”—or Texans who would consider voting for an upstart Democrat.

Back here in our still-rifted reality, Cruz did note that his own wife was a “California vegetarian,” but he claimed that he “brought her to the great state of Texas.” According to a 2013 New York Times profile of Heidi Cruz, it sounds like she brought her own damn self to Texas: The two met in Austin in 2000, when they both worked as policy aides on George W. Bush’s presidential campaign. And, based on an unscientific analysis of photos that show her occasional dark roots, she also seems to be familiar with the magic of hair dye.

Heidi, we don’t want to tell you what to do, but make sure you surround yourself with people who appreciate your diet and your hair color.