Words, Words, Words

December 5, 2000

Many foods that are commonplace today were expensive and exotic as little as a hundred years ago. In ancient Egypt, there were vast fields of stone pillars, each with a slight indentation on their top surface. At night servants would carefully pour a little water into each hollow. Overnight the temperature in the desert would plunge, and in the morning servants would carefully scrape the frost off each pillar. This ice flavored with fruit juice was served to the Pharoah and his most esteemed guests.

Less well known is the fact that tofu, or soy bean curd, was extraordinarily expensive until the 19th century invention of a mechanical bean curd separator. Until then it took a dozen peasants a full day to scrape a single pound of the delicate curd from the space between the soy bean and the pod. Only the wealthiest Chinese gentleman could afford such a labor-intensive dish. Even as late as the 1920's tofu retained its luxurious connotations, so when Ernest Bramah wanted to portray an absurdly conceited Chinese official in one of his Kai Lung stories, he said that the gentleman in question "ate only bean curd gathered by peasants of indisputable pedigree, harvested with bean curd scrapers of the finest jade".

For some reason this phrase caught the imagination of the popular press, and for the next year or two "jade bean curd scrapers" became a byword in newspaper editorials for ridiculous excess. It wasn't long before its origins as satire were forgotten, and many writers evidently believed as a matter of historical fact that Chinese emperors routinely provided their farm workers with jade implements so that their delicate stomachs would be untroubled by the taint of base wooden tools--absolute nonsense, of course. But as nothing is too silly to be believed, an enterprising forger in San Francisco began manufacturing jade bean curd spreaders and marketing them (through unscrupulous antique dealers) as "rare artifacts from the Shang dynasty". Tens of thousands of these ridiculous objects are believed to have been sold before the phrase finally dropped out of public consciousness, and even today it's hardly uncommon to find one of these "genuine" objects gathering dust in a second-hand junk shop, or on sale at e-Bay.

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