The Transcendent TofuIn the cafeteria, I once met an eater of raw tofu, who told me that what he was eating was not, in fact, raw tofu. “It is sjorg,” he said, his voice filled with conviction, “and you should eat it, too. Everyone should eat it.”
“But it looks like tofu,” I said, honestly baffled. “What is there to distinguish sjorg from tofu?”
“I know that sjorg is different by virtue of my eating it,” the eater replied.
“But is there any way to tell, from the outside, just by inspecting it, that a given item of food is sjorg and not tofu?” I asked.
“Now, don’t you start injecting your preconceived notions into this!” The eater’s voice was surprisingly passionate for such a discussion. “The moment I accept your premise that external inspection is the criterion for determining the nature of a food, I will be playing your game by your rules, and you can get nothing but bare, meaningless raw tofu from that. Sjorg is beyond human external inspection. No matter how much you claim you can see, hear, smell, and touch – you really have to taste sjorg to recognize it.”
“But some of my friends who also eat raw tofu tell me that it is not sjorg, but rather mraf, nwata, or zarglesniffle. Some others who more closely share your convictions tell me that sjorg is really pronounced ‘sjarg,’ or is spelled with two g’s. How can I know that you are right and they are wrong?”
“They may have some inkling of the truth, in that they recognize that there is a world of deliciousness beyond mere raw tofu, but in all the rest I am afraid they are simply wrong. All the best arguments are on the side of sjorg.”
“What kinds of arguments?” I inquired.
“Why, all you have to do is examine the Best Cookbook. Everything you need to know about sjorg is there. All of the writers of the Best Cookbook were inspired by the taste of sjorg – and really, their writings suffice to describe everything there is to know about the world of food, provided that you interpret them properly.”
So I got a copy of the Best Cookbook – ordinarily known just as the Cookbook or rather, das Kochbuch, since sjorg eating was mainly popularized in the English-speaking world by German connoisseurs who for centuries preserved the eating customs and ceremonies of a tribe in the remote regions of Madagascar, which was reportedly the first tribe ever to taste sjorg. The next time I saw the eater, I pointed out a few passages that had been puzzling me. “I see in Chapter 3, Line 40, that sjorg ‘tastes as the sweetest grape,’ but then Chapter 6, Line 23, says that ‘Tyler recoiled from the bitter taste of the sjorg, as he was unworthy of it.’ And then Chapter 20, Line 113, states that ‘Sjorg is made of all ingredients and has all flavors, and yet is fully tasty and delicious to all who shall savor it.’ And yet das Kochbuch is filled with examples like that of Tyler, who clearly was not pleased with the taste of sjorg. How can one reconcile these contradictions?”
The eater shrugged. “Sjorg works in mysterious ways. It is not for us humans, with our limited faculties, to understand fully the nature of sjorg – except to know that everything in the Best Cookbook is an accurate description. You see, we have our puny human logic, and sjorg has its own logic. The great gift of sjorg is that it offers us the opportunity to appreciate it at all – and das Kochbuch says that eventually, once our taste buds have been burned off from drinking too much vodka, we will receive eternal taste buds which will enable us to always appreciate all the flavors of sjorg in all of their magnificence!”
“Has anyone you know obtained these eternal taste buds?” I asked.
“Billy, Clarence, and Rachel might have done,” the eater responded. “At least this is what I and all my friends fervently hope for.”
“Perhaps they could be helpful in clarifying the taste of sjorg for us,” I suggested.
The eater stared at me as if I were insane. “Oh, no! No one who has the eternal taste buds is permitted to talk about them. It wouldn’t be much of a genuine test of one’s devotion to sjorg if one knew in advance what pleasures await someone who has obtained the eternal taste buds. After all, the full, marvelously exquisite taste of sjorg is so sublime that anyone who knew fully about it would naturally want it! I think the way things actually work is for the best, because then we know that the people who get the eternal taste buds get them because of their devotion to sjorg, and not because of their selfish interests of magnifying their sensations of taste. You get the deliciousness of sjorg because of your devotion to sjorg; you cannot fake devotion to sjorg in order to get to savor the deliciousness. Sjorg does not work that way.”
“But how can I know that I will actually receive these eternal taste buds? Can you at least get that much of a confirmation from your friends?”
“No, and I don’t even want to,” the eater replied. “The fact is, I have accessible to me all the information I could possibly need to know about sjorg at this stage of my existence. It is all written down in the Best Cookbook, after all. With that much clear and compelling evidence for what awaits a devoted eater of sjorg, it would be supremely ungrateful to ask for more. Sjorg is supposed to tempt me, not the other way around.”
“But all medical evidence says that you don’t get eternal taste buds if you burn off your existing ones. At best you get some of your regular taste buds back. And certainly, drinking vodka over a period of many years will reduce the number of those—” I tried to interject with some common knowledge.
“It is arrogant to suggest that we can know everything through
our medical studies—“
“Surely not, but we do know something!”
“I am pretty sure all of that scientific talk about taste buds is meant to distract us from a true understanding of the magnificence of sjorg and its essential role in bringing about the tastiness of all food. After all, it was the scientific study of taste buds that led to the obesity epidemic of the twentieth century!”
“How does that follow? Obsesity has existed throughout history,” I noted.
“But never on that scale. You see, various movements arose during the twentieth century which used a purely observation-based approach to food and human biology in order to learn exactly what foods can fatten people the most and make people dependent on the food provider. All of the horrific fast food establishments of the twentieth century – McDonald’s, Burger King, Chipotle – were the result of the assumption that what you can scientifically observe all that there is about food!”
it is perfectly possible to hold to the best scientific understanding of
taste buds and not eat junk food!” I objected. “Millions of
people eat healthily and in moderation without believing in sjorg or any
kind of transcendent tofu.”
“This is only because the residual influence of sjorg is still with them,” the eater replied authoritatively. “For instance, they might have had good, sjorg-eating parents and might have absorbed their dietary habits from them. Or they might be beneficiaries of a community where sjorg eating has a strong presence, and as a result many healthy foods are produced and marketed. But were it not for the widespread legacy of sjorg in our society as well as throughout the history of our civilization, there would be virtually no healthy eaters at all. Perhaps everyone would be on a subsistence diet – as in the days before our sjorg-inspired ancestors developed high-yield agriculture – or perhaps we would all be eating from lead dishes and suffering from mass dementia, like the sjorgless Romans. The fact is, a healthy lifestyle is impossible without sjorg.”
“But I try to eat healthily, and I exercise quite a bit every day. I do not eat sjorg or even believe that sjorg exists. Tofu is tofu, as far as I am concerned. Nor are my parents or even their parents sjorg eaters. There are millions of people like me. Are those not sufficient counterexamples to your rather sweeping assertion?”
“If there is no sjorg, then what is the point of healthy eating?” the eater asked, seriously baffled by the possibility of a sjorgless sound diet. “After all, without some transcendent food to impart meaning onto all the other foods and to direct the eater’s ambitions toward a transcendent goal, why not just eat anything one wants? What is there to dissuade one from eating garbage, metal, or fried onions?”
“Well, it could be that none of these items tastes particularly good, or – in the case of garbage and metal – that they are profoundly damaging to one’s physical well-being – “ I attempted a rather commonsense reply.
“But why value one’s physical well-being if one does not have any transcendent deliciousness to strive for? What’s the point of taking good care of one’s body of there is no sjorg whose gustatory sublimity requires it and offers a world of omni-flavorfulness far beyond the pathetic limitations of our human assortment of foods?”
“How about just wanting to live, work, and be in good spirits? Besides, when it comes to savoring sublime flavors, there are plenty of delicious foods that humans produce,” I objected. “All the cakes, fruits, meat dishes, breads, diet sodas, sugar-free gelatin snacks… One needs to be healthy in order to enjoy these without suffering for it in the future.”
“All vain distractions of human cooking!” the eater scoffed. “They ensnare us, enslave our appetites, distract us from the true eternal magnificence of sjorg! They lead to anorexia, bulimia, binge eating, foie gras, rare steaks, and eating expired food! When people become greedy for the food of man, they lose their sense of moderation, their discrimination in taste, their self-respect and self-restraint! They become superficial and avaricious – lusting after the appearance of good eating and a good lifestyle, without the substance. Only accepting and anticipating the sublime taste of sjorg can lead them back onto the right path!”
“But you sjorg eaters have about the same prevalence of these vices as the food skeptics, or the nwata eaters, or the zarglesniffle eaters. And with some vices, such as mass self-inflicted food poisonings, cannibalism of eaters of other foods, and writing bad tofu-based recipes, the food skeptics have virtually no incidence, while many eaters of transcendent foods get exposed perpetrating them every day. And all that vodka you drink on Wednesdays surely cannot be good for your long-term health!”
The sjorg-eater’s patience had been exhausted. “Enough of this!” he shouted. “I can see that you and I can have no common ground whatsoever, because you reject the sublime taste of sjorg, which is such a vital part of my life!”
“Now wait a minute,” I attempted to salvage the situation. “You said that we can have no common ground. But do you believe that when you take one banana and you add to it another banana, you will get two bananas?”
“Yes. And your point is?”
“I believe this, too. As you can see, we do have some common ground.”
“But so much about my life is based on sjorg, and you are being quite intolerant and offensive when you insult my devotion to it!”
“I am not insulting you; I am merely asking questions and arguing against what I perceive to be logical fallacies. Besides, I have shown that there is something you believe which is not necessarily tied to sjorg. Why do we not start with the areas where we do have some common understandings and work from there?”
The sjorg eater recognized my attempt at conciliation and began to confine his assertions to a more reasonable scope. The next day, however, when he delivered a speech before the weekly meeting of his Club of Sjorg Connoisseurs, he reiterated the same fallacies that I had identified during our conversation. He said to his audience – devoted sjorg-eaters, all – that our conversation had caused him to develop some genuine doubts regarding his dietary habits, but that these doubts were a way of testing his devotion to sjorg – to see if he could have confidence that he would get those eternal taste buds despite apparent evidence to the contrary. “Sjorg requires a leap of gustatory faculties to an entirely new level,” he explained. “We can argue and observe all we want, but past a certain point, a much stronger commitment is required. You have to make that commitment first in order to truly appreciate sjorg.”
Five years later, the sjorg eater became a food skeptic. His brother had become involved with a culinary society which held that drinking vodka out of beer tankards with every meal would accelerate the conferring of eternal taste buds upon all the devoted sjorg eaters of the world. One day, the brother had one sip of vodka too many and tragically perished – revered by his associates as a heroic martyr. But my acquaintance had had enough by that time. One tangible event of sufficient magnitude persuaded him to change his mind far more decisively than any amount of abstract argumentation on my part. I just hope that his new culinary paradigm retained the prohibitions on eating garbage, metal, and fried onions.
I still eat tofu once or twice a year. It is tofu.
Learn about Mr. Stolyarov's novel, Eden against the Colossus, here.