Here’s to Gunter Pfaff, tempeh true believer and visionary.
Meatless Monday: The Joy, the Soy, the (Sub-)Culture of Tempeh
Originally posted on Huffington Post.for
Betsy Shipley has seen the future, and it is an eco-loving foodie’s wet dream — honest, local, sustainable, organic, free of genetic modification, green, delicious, affordable and accessible to all. Yes, you say, I want that, too. It all revolves around tempeh. Still with us?
Tempeh, the Indonesian soy superfood, dates back to sometime in the 16th century. And yet to the uninitiated, tempeh still provokes blank stares. Or fear.
“It’s the mold,” sighs Betsy’s husband, Gunter Pfaff. “The moldy culture. Edible mold in cheese or sauerkraut is totally acceptable, but with tempeh, it’s still a little weird.”
Gunter knows weird. A former documentary filmmaker, he found himself at 50 overeducated and unemployed, a victim of the recession. Sound familiar? This happened 30 years ago.
“It was Michigan, 1980, the previous recession,” says a wry Gunter. “You could either drink yourself to death, jump off a bridge or do something constructive. I decided to make tempeh.”
Now you can find packaged tempeh at natural food stores and even some supermarkets. Back then, if you could get it at all, it was through small local co-ops and was often handmade and homegrown. That’s how Gunter and Betsy discovered it in the 70s. Others may fear tempeh, but they were tempeh true believers from the start, mold and all.
“We thought it was great,” says Betsy, a vegetarian trying “to get away from eating too much cheese.”
“I was into sausages,” says Gunter. “It was the substitute for my meat habit, my sausage habit. If it wasn’t for Betsy and tempeh, I would have been dead a long time ago.”
Distinctly not dead, Gunter is 77, “pretty healthy,” as he says, and active. He and Betsy bike and play tennis every day. Good genes? Maybe. But a diet tipping more towards tempeh than sausage doesn’t hurt.
Mild-tasting tempeh packs serious nutritional creds, with 20 protein grams per 4-ounce serving, beaucoup fiber and only about 200 calories. It’s got chew and substance, it’s a meat substitute with a million apps.
It is one thing to love tempeh. It is another to go pro with it. Betsy’s Tempeh started small, with the couple buying organic soybeans from local farmers and making tempeh on their Ann Arbor farm. While larger companies sell tempeh in bricks, they shaped theirs into patties, selling to neighboring food co-ops and nearby restaurants, who couldn’t keep up with tempeh burger demand.
“We’ve done demos in supermarkets where people gave us a hug and said, ‘Oh, thank God, you saved my life — I’ve got vegetarian teenagers or a husband with a triple bypass.’ We’ve had other people say, ‘I’ll eat my meat and die early, thank you.’” Gunter sighs. “Being way ahead of our time is very lonesome.”
If Betsy and Gunter had the vision — and cojones — to make tempeh before the world was ready, you can at least try eating it. Buy a brick. Better yet, try making it yourself via Gunter’s DIY tempeh technique. Make it for personal consumption. Go into business and make a fortune. Though retired from the tempeh biz, the couple remain the Johnny Appleseeds of tempeh, wanting to spread the joy and the soy. They will consult and talk you through the process.
Tempeh has a long and illustrious history, but it’s the future of tempeh Betsy has dreams about, with each community having “ a worker-owned tempeh production unit. We would love to see small food coops start making tempeh for the local community while working with organic farmers to grow the beans.”
“It’s so useful, such green food,” says Gunter. “And you don’t have to kill anything for lunch.”