History of Soy in the United States 1766-1900

by William Shurtleff and Akiko Aoyagi

A Chapter from the Unpublished Manuscript, History of Soybeans and
Soyfoods, 1100 B.C. to the 1980s

©Copyright 2004 Soyfoods Center, Lafayette, Californi


Early References to Soyfoods: 1766-1900. Interest in soyfoods in the US prior to 1900 lagged far behind that in Europe. During this period, we have seen 91 published reports or unpublished letters from the US in which soy was mentioned. Of these, only 15 (16%) even mention the use of foods made from soybeans and in only 4 (4.3%) is it stated or implied that the author tasted soybeans in the form of any type of food. Most of the foods tasted were whole boiled soybeans, probably the least appealing form. No doubt, then, that soyfoods were slow to catch on in America.

The earliest known references to soyfoods in America were by Samuel Bowen. He brought soybeans to Georgia, where they were first planted in 1765. In 1766 he received a present of 200 guineas from King George III of England for soy sauce he had developed. In 1767 he mentioned soy sprouts and soy vermicelli (probably made from soy flour) in a letter and was also granted an English patent for soy sauce. During 1770-75 he exported to England 1,058 quarts of soy sauce that he had made in Georgia (Hymowitz and Harlan 1983). Redo??

The second earliest known reference to soyfoods was by Benjamin Franklin. In January 1770 he wrote his friend John Bartram in Philadelphia, about soybeans and Father Navarette's account of tofu in China, written in 1665 (Smyth 1907; first cited by Hymowitz and Harlan 1983).

The next mention of soyfoods in America appeared in James Mease's article titled "Soy" in the 1804 edition of The Domestic Encyclopedia by A.M.F. Willich. This article was primarily about soy sauce rather than about the soybean plant. Mease stated: "Soy, or Sooju, is a species of liquid condiment, which is imported from India, and is used as a sauce for fish. It is prepared from the leguminous fruit of the Soja ( Dolichos soja , L.) a native of Japan." After giving a detailed description of how soy sauce is made he stated, "Soy possesses a strongly saline taste, but has only a slightly aromatic flavor; it is chiefly used at the tables of the luxurious; and is one of these artificial stimulants of the palate, which deserves no condemnation, especially for vitiated or relaxed habits." He concluded, almost as an afterthought, "The Soy-bean bears the climate of Pennsylvania very well. The bean ought therefore to be cultivated."

The next US document on soy, an article in the New England Farmer by Nuttall (of the Cambridge Botanic Garden) on "Soy Bean" in 1829 also mentioned soyfoods:

Whether in this country, where so many fine legumes are cultivated, it might be esteemed for food, is doubtful; the experiment may easily be made. But its principal recommendation is only as a luxury, affording the well known sauce called Soy, which at this time is only prepared in China and Japan--that of the latter country being usually preferred. The mode of obtaining this sauce is said to be as follows:

He then gave a detailed description somewhat similar to that of Mease (1804).

Browne (1855) was the next to mention soyfoods. In discussing the soybeans brought to America by the Perry Expedition to Japan he mentioned that they "are employed by the Japanese for making soy , a kind of black sauce, prepared with the seeds of this plant, wheaten flour, salt, and water. This `soy,' or `soja,' which is preferred to the Kitjap of the Chinese, is used in almost all their dishes instead of common salt. The soy may be made as follows:" A short description was then given.

The first mention of a food other than soy sauce appeared in 1855. A man with initials T.V.P. of Mount Carmel, Ohio, wrote to The Country Gentleman concerning soybeans: "When eaten a few times they are pleasant enough, but have very little flavor--better when mixed with other beans. Before cooking they must be soaked at least 24 hours. They are inconvenient to use green, being difficult to hull." This was the first mention of any American eating boiled soybeans and fresh green soybeans.

In 1857 an editorial in the American Agriculturalist said of soybeans:

We first saw them cooked upon the table of a friend, and were not especially pleased with the flavor . . . Others are better pleased with them. Mr. Thos. R. Joynes, Jr., of Accomac, Va., writes . . . As for the eating qualities, I can only say, that I have just risen from the table at which I made my first trial of them, and I want nothing better. They make a rich and most excellent dish--inferior to no bean or pea I have ever seen.

He enjoyed mature, not fresh green, soybeans.

In literature on soybeans from 1923 on (Piper and Morse 1923; Dies 1942??) it is frequently stated that the soybean was roasted and ground for use as a coffee substitute during the Civil War. No citations are given and an extensive search of the literature has revealed no evidence of such a practice, nor of any documents at all about soy from 1859-1873.

In another editorial in the American Agriculturalist of 1874 on soybeans, L.L. Osment of Cleveland, Tennessee stated that they were "unsurpassed for table use." A Mr. Johnson found them to be "not desirable for table use." A man from Boston wrote, "They may be delicious to the celestial palate, but my wife found them hard to cook and I found them hard to eat--never getting soft no matter how long they were boiled." The editors concluded "Thus far we think the weight of evidence is against their utility as a table vegetable. . . (they are also) used to make the sauce called Soy, which was formerly more used than at present."

In 1879, Cook, in the first report on soybeans by a US university (Rutgers, New Jersey) included a translation of an article on soybeans from Munich, which mentioned food uses: ". . . a plant whose pleasant-tasting seeds are rich in albumen and fat, in very digestible forms . . . Its seeds, boiled or roasted, have a pleasant taste, and form an almost daily part of the food in India, China, and Japan." This was the first US mention of roasted soynuts. An 1882 article in The Rural New-Yorker also carried this full translation.

In 1882, Dabney of the North Carolina Agricultural Experiment Station, in the longest and most detailed US report on soybeans to date noted:

Owing to its peculiar composition, containing so much proteins and fat and no starch, it is best prepared with other things to supply the starch, such as potatoes or rice. Prof. Hecke of Vienna highly commends a dish prepared by boiling these beans and potatoes separately, mashing them, mixing one part of the beans with two of the potatoes and seasoning to taste. He thinks that the beans contain so much fat, that no milk or butter needs to be added to this dish.

In 1891 Georgeson and co-workers of the Kansas State Agricultural Experiment Station noted that

The bean takes its common name, 'Soy,' from a sauce manufactured from it, which in commerce goes by the name of 'Soy,' though the Japanese name for this sauce is 'Shoyu' . . . the delicious brown sauce so common in Japan, and which forms the basis of the best sauces in this country . . . Sometimes (the beans) are eaten green when nearly full grown; they are boiled in the pods and shelled at the meal.

Most of the many state agricultural experiment station reports that began to appear in the 1880s were interested in soybeans only as a food for livestock or to enrich the soil with nitrogen. It is not clear exactly why such a strong trend developed, given the mixed reviews concerning the soybean's flavor. But exceptions to this rule continued. In 1893, Flagg and Towar of the Rhode Island Experiment Station noted once again that soybeans were "used for preparing a well-known brown and slightly salty sauce (Soy) used both in Asia and Europe for flavoring certain dishes, especially beef, and supposed to favor digestion." He added that a variety of the bean had been advertised in Missouri as "Cole's Domestic Coffee Berry," and "offered for sale at the extravagant price of $3.50 per pound. Its wonderful merit as a substitute for coffee was set forth in a `dodger' with `testimonials' attached." This is the first known US mention of the soybean in connection with coffee. In 1895 Mell of the Alabama Experiment Station repeated Flagg's remarks about "soy," adding a mistaken reference to "miso" as the name of a small type of soybean.

The first real article on soyfoods, except for that by Mease in 1804 on soy sauce, was Henry Trimble's "Recent Literature on the Soja Bean" published in the American Journal of Pharmacy , 1896. Clearly stating that his information came from recent reports from Japan and Europe, he discussed in detail soybean and soyfoods nutrition and made the first mention in the US of soy sprouts, soy oil, miso, natto, tofu, and dried-frozen tofu, each of which he described in detail, including the method of preparation. Now, for the first time, America became aware of the many foods besides soy sauce, whole dry soybeans, fresh green soybeans, and soy coffee, that could be made from the soybean. We feel that lack of awareness of these foods and how to make them was a major reason for the lack of interest in soyfoods during the 1900s.

A second excellent article on soyfoods appeared in 1897, C.F. Langworthy's "Soy Beans as Food for Man," published by the USDA (Farmers' Bulletin No. 58). In addition to all of the foods discussed by Trimble, he also mentioned soymilk, yuba, and three types of miso (white, red, and Swiss).

The first US recipe for cooking soybeans (they were called "soy peas") appeared in Bulletin 98 of the North Carolina Agricultural Experiment Station (McCarthy and Emery 1894). It was developed by Dr. J.H. Mills of the Baptist Orphanage at Thomasville, NC:

Soak the peas till the skins come off. Then stir the peas in the water until the skins rise to the surface and skim them off. Boil the peas with bacon until soft. Add pepper and butter to suit and serve hot. If the peas are green the preliminary soaking may be omitted. This makes a most palatable dish, well liked by children.

In 1897 the first nutritional analysis of soybean protein in the US was done by Osborne and Campbell. However, no specific foods or food uses were mentioned.

The last important US article on soyfoods prior to 1900 was Blasedale's "Some Chinese Vegetable Food Materials" (1899). He visited Chinese markets in San Francisco and described yellow and black soybeans for food use, tofu, deep-fried tofu, and soy sauce. Of deep-fried tofu he said "It is usually cooked in peanut oil before being eaten and, in the author's opinion, is a palatable food." He also cited many European articles about soyfoods.

The above are all of the known US references to soyfoods prior to 1900.