The Tofu Curtain is a cultural or socioeconomic divide between two geographic regions and the people who reside in them, using tofu as a symbol of lifestyle and political leanings. The term was coined to identify trends on either side of a county line in the Pioneer Valley along the Connecticut River in Massachusetts, and has also been widely used similarly with regards to gentrifying neighborhoods in Melbourne, Australia. While the Tofu Curtain most often refers to these regions of Victoria and Western Massachusetts, other tofu curtains have been named along similar socioeconomic, educational, and/or ethno-racial divides in various locations around the globe
The term derives from the political and ideological Iron Curtain that separated communist Eastern Bloc countries from Western Europe during the Cold War. "Tofu" implies a high proportion of vegetarians reside on one side of the divide, and associates left wing politics with vegetarianism.
The line of the Tofu Curtain runs roughly east-west along the Holyoke Range. To the north is wealthier Hampshire County, home to the Five College Consortium of Amherst, Hampshire, Mount Holyoke and Smith Colleges, and the University of Massachusetts. To the south is Hampden County, comprising the mostly working class cities of Holyoke and Springfield, and their surrounding towns. While this southern part of the Massachusetts' Pioneer Valley is the second largest metropolitan region in the state, areas of it are economically depressed, with a deficit of available jobs and average household incomes ranging from $14,000 to $24,000 annually. Meanwhile, the more rural and collegiate areas to the north are home to a preponderance of worker cooperatives and small businesses that often manufacture and sell natural products (such as tofu) to a more affluent population.
While the Tofu Curtain's distinction is based on U.S. Census data and the repute of the two counties on either side of the Holyoke Range, their demographics are not absolute. Hampshire County being framed as "more collegiate" than Hampden either ignores the presence of the nine additional colleges and universities in the Springfield metropolitan area's Knowledge Corridor or regards these educational institutions as inferior to those of the Five College Consortium. In addition to being populated by affluent residents and college students, economic disparities exist within Northampton, resulting in neighborhood rifts on that side of the Tofu Curtain. Despite the presence of a wealthy college and huge university, 2016 data showed that 50% of Amherst children received free or reduced lunches at public school on the criterion of living in low-income households. Likewise, Hampden county's large working class and Puerto Rican populations have been active in community organizing and progressive politics, activities often associated with the culture of the college towns to the north. The assertion that there is a Tofu Curtain has also been a rallying point for people living and working on both sides of the county line to create equitable systems of food sovereignty, workplace democracy, and environmental justice as means to destratify the region economically while uniting it politically.
Elsewhere in the United States
People use the term "tofu curtain" to describe a similar sociopolitical phenomenon outside of Western Massachusetts. Those residing in other politically or ecologically progressive regions of New England, such as Cambridge, Massachusetts, or the entire state of Vermont, are sometimes posited as living "behind the Tofu Curtain." Likewise, the term is used pejoratively by those wanting to deplore what they see as a liberal agenda, and posts referring to California as being "behind the tofu curtain" proliferate online forums that support expanding freedoms for civilian gun use.
Tofu curtain can also be used to describe an ideological situation, not specific to the geographies of neighborhood or county lines. In a 2003 essay, Paul Gilroy described a political speak-out on a university campus and used the term "tofu curtain" as a metaphor for petty factionalizations among different strains of student activism:
As peace rallies proliferate, the campus left will have to tear down the tofu curtain and dig itself out from underneath the wreckage of identity politics so narcissistic and short-sighted that it reproduces the political solipsism and imperialistic indifference that are usually associated with power and privilege.
Similarly the Inter-Cooperative Council at the University of Michigan has named a dietary split between vegetarians and meat-eaters within its membership "The Tofu Curtain." At one point an agreement among the co-ops made the split geographical, marked by a particular corner in Ann Arbor with all co-op houses on one side having "veggie" and on the other side "carnie" kitchens. The Ann Arbor co-ops were using the term as early as 1984.
In Australia's 2016 federal election, voters south of Bell Street in Melbourne's northern suburb of Brunswick voted overwhelmingly for the Green Party and those to the north went for the Labor Party. While the neighborhoods that voted Labor still lean left politically, they tend to be more working class, and the gentrified neighborhoods of Brunswick and North Melbourne went Green. The split helped nickname Bell Street the Tofu Curtain, and other nicknames proliferated, including "The Corduroy Line," "The Latte Line," "The Great Wall of Quinoa," and "The Hipster-Proof Fence", evoking Australia's famed "rabbit-proof fence" of the early 20th century. In 2018 the term was used pejoratively by Australia's fossil fuel industry to divide Green Party and Labor activists from organizing together against expansion of coal mining and gas drilling.
Because tofu originated in China, Japan, Korea, and other regions of East Asia, the term "tofu curtain" has also described differences between eastern and western culture. A 2007 study conducted by the United Nations's Food and Agriculture Organization showed that in one year China consumed nearly 100 times the amount of soybeans per person over the United States, while the Japan-to-U.S. per capita rate of consumption was more than 200-to-1. and that same year the Food and Agriculture Organization Corporate Statistical Database revealed that Korea's soy consumption rate fell about midway between Japan's and China's. 2013 data showed these proportions to be about the same, with Taiwan consuming the highest amount of soyfoods per capita at a rate 15% higher than that of Japan's. While ethnicity and diet are considerations in this particular usage, political leanings are a lessor factor on the Asian side of the curtain, as tofu is a dietary staple in Asia and therefore not associated with particular political parties, movements, or factions.
In other media
In September 2016 Western Massachusetts residents launched TofuCurtain.com, a site for "Satire and Commentary in the Pioneer Valley." Among the site's earliest stories were "Recent Graduate Will Shave, Cut Hair After Finding Job," "WikiLeaks Release Reveals Town of Hadley Extremely Boring," "Hampshire College Replaces American Flag with 'For Sale' Sign," and "New Privilege Checkpoint at Coolidge Bridge raises Traffic Concerns. By the end of 2018, the website no longer existed."
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