Tofu Curtain

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A map of the U.S. state of Massachusetts highlighting two of its counties in the Pioneer Valley; Hampshire County appears in green, Hampden County in red, with the Tofu Curtain tracing the line between them. Hampshire and Hamden Counties.jpg
A map of the U.S. state of Massachusetts highlighting two of its counties in the Pioneer Valley; Hampshire County appears in green, Hampden County in red, with the Tofu Curtain tracing the line between them.

Tofu Curtain is a nickname for a cultural or socioeconomic divide between two geographic regions and the people who reside in them, with the concept of tofu symbolizing certain lifestyles and political leanings. The term was coined in Massachusetts to identify trends on either side of a county line in the Pioneer Valley along the Connecticut River, and has also been widely used similarly with regards to gentrifying neighborhoods in Melbourne, Australia. [1] While the Tofu Curtain most often refers to these specific regions of Victoria and Western Massachusetts, other tofu curtains have been named along similar socioeconomic, educational, ideological, political and/or ethno-racial divides in various locations around the globe. [2]


The term derives from the political and ideological Iron Curtain that separated communist Eastern Bloc countries from Western Europe during the Cold War. The insertion of "tofu" into the phrase asserts that a high proportion of vegetarians reside on one side of the divide, and associates left wing politics with vegetarianism.


Western Massachusetts

View of the Holyoke Range from Bare Mountain Bare Mountain - Mount Holyoke Range.jpg
View of the Holyoke Range from Bare Mountain

The line of the Tofu Curtain in Western Massachusetts runs roughly east–west along the Holyoke Range. [3] [4] 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. [5] To the south is Hampden County, comprising the mostly working class cities of Holyoke and Springfield, and their surrounding towns. [6] 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 significantly lower household incomes. [7] 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. [8] [9] The term has been applied to this region of Massachusetts as early as 2006. [10]

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, [11] or regards these educational institutions as inferior to those of the Five College Consortium. [12] In addition to being populated by some more 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, an estimated 30-40% of students in the Amherst-Pelham school district qualified for free or reduced lunches in 2017 due to living in low-income households. [13]

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. [14] 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. [8] [15] [16] In a 2022 interview with WRSI radio, Emily Brewster of Merriam-Webster called the Tofu Curtain "an imagined line" that can be "problematic" and "over-simplifying" in its attempts to define a region and its people. [10]

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 said to be living "behind the Tofu Curtain." Likewise, the term is used pejoratively by those opposed to a liberal political agenda; for example, posts referring to California as being "behind the tofu curtain" proliferate in online forums that support expanding freedoms for civilian gun use. [17] [18] [ unreliable source ] The term "tofu curtain" can also be used to describe an ideological situation, as opposed to a specific geographic area. 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. [19]

Similarly, the Inter-Cooperative Council at the University of Michigan has used the term "tofu curtain" to refer to a dietary split between vegetarians and meat-eaters among its members. 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. [20]


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 as Melbourne's own Tofu Curtain. In 2018 Australia's fossil fuel industry took advantage of the nickname by volleying the term pejoratively in attempts to divide Green Party and Labor activists from organizing together against expansion of coal mining and gas drilling. [21] [22] Other nicknames for Bell Street and the sociopolitical split it represents have proliferated in Melbourne, 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. [23] [24] [25] [26] [27]


Tofu and potatoes grilled, served and eaten at a street stall in Yunnan, China Tufo and potatoes grilled.jpg
Tofu and potatoes grilled, served and eaten at a street stall in Yunnan, China

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. [28] A 2007 study conducted by the United Nations's Food and Agriculture Organization showed that in one year China consumed nearly 100 times more soybeans per person than the United States, while the Japan-to-U.S. per capita rate of soybean consumption was more than 200-to-1. [29] That same year, the Food and Agriculture Organization Corporate Statistical Database revealed that South Korea's soy consumption rate fell about midway between Japan's and China's. [29] 2013 data showed these proportions to be about the same, with Taiwan consuming the highest amount of soy foods per capita, at a rate 15% higher than that of Japan's. [30] Unlike in the United States and Australia, tofu in East Asia is a dietary staple and is not associated with particular political parties, movements, or factions. [31]

In other media

In September 2016 Western Massachusetts residents launched, 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. [32]

Related Research Articles

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Amherst, Massachusetts</span> City in Massachusetts, United States

Amherst is a city in Hampshire County, Massachusetts, United States, in the Connecticut River valley. Amherst, with a council–manager form of government, is considered a city under Massachusetts state law. Amherst is one of several Massachusetts municipalities that have city forms of government but retain "The Town of" in their official names. At the 2020 census, the population was 39,263, making it the highest populated municipality in Hampshire County. The town is home to Amherst College, Hampshire College, and the University of Massachusetts Amherst, three of the Five Colleges.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Hampden County, Massachusetts</span> County in Massachusetts, United States

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Hampshire County, Massachusetts</span> County in Massachusetts, United States

Hampshire County is a historical and judicial county located in the U.S. state of Massachusetts. As of the 2020 census, the population was 162,308. Its most populous municipality is Amherst, its largest town in terms of landmass is Belchertown, and its traditional county seat is Northampton. The county is named after the county Hampshire, in England. Hampshire County is part of the Springfield, MA Metropolitan Statistical Area. Together with Hampden County, Hampshire County municipalities belong to the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Holyoke, Massachusetts</span> City in Massachusetts, United States

Holyoke is a city in Hampden County, Massachusetts, United States, that lies between the western bank of the Connecticut River and the Mount Tom Range. As of the 2020 census, the city had a population of 38,247. Located 8 miles (13 km) north of Springfield, Holyoke is part of the Springfield Metropolitan Area, one of the two distinct metropolitan areas in Massachusetts.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Five College Consortium</span> Group of colleges in Western Massachusetts, US

The Five College Consortium comprises four liberal arts colleges and one university in the Connecticut River Pioneer Valley of Western Massachusetts: Amherst College, Hampshire College, Mount Holyoke College, Smith College, and the University of Massachusetts Amherst, totaling approximately 38,000 students. They are geographically close to one another and are linked by frequent bus service that operates between the campuses during the school year.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Pioneer Valley</span> Massachusetts portion of the Connecticut River Valley, US

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Western Massachusetts</span> Region of Massachusetts, United States

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Holyoke Community College</span> Community college in Holyoke, Massachusetts, U.S.

Holyoke Community College (HCC) is a public community college in Holyoke, Massachusetts. It offers associate degrees and certificate programs, as well as a transfer program for students to earn credits for transfer to other colleges. It was the first community college established in Massachusetts, as it was founded by the city's school board in 1946, while others were subsequently chartered under state jurisdiction after 1960.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Massachusetts's 1st congressional district</span> U.S. House district for Massachusetts

Massachusetts's 1st congressional district is a United States congressional district located in the western and central part of Massachusetts. The state's largest congressional district in area, it covers about one-third of the state and is more rural than the rest. It has the state's highest point, Mount Greylock; the district includes the cities of Springfield, West Springfield, Pittsfield, Holyoke, Agawam, Chicopee and Westfield.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Holyoke Range</span> Mountain range in Massachusetts, US

The Holyoke Range or Mount Holyoke Range is a traprock mountain range located in the Connecticut River Valley of Massachusetts. It is a sub-range of the narrow, linear Metacomet Ridge that extends from Long Island Sound near New Haven, Connecticut north through the Connecticut River Valley of Massachusetts to the Vermont border. A popular hiking destination, the range is known for its anomalous east–west orientation, high ledges and its scenic character. It is also notable for its unique microclimate ecosystems and rare plant communities, as well as significant historic sites, such as the Mount Holyoke Summit House and the Horse Caves.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Springfield metropolitan area, Massachusetts</span> Metropolitan statistical area in Massachusetts, United States

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<span class="mw-page-title-main">Aaron Vega</span> American politician

Aaron Vega is an American state legislator who previously represented the 5th Hampden district of the Massachusetts House of Representatives, co-owner of a yoga business, and a former film editor. He has been nominated for the Argentine Film Critics Association's Silver Condor Award for Best Film for directing jazz documentary Van Van - Empezó la fiesta!, and has worked on several PBS documentaries including American Experience and Ken Burns' Jazz. A member of the Democratic Party, Vega began his political career in 2009 when he successfully ran as a city councilor in Holyoke, and subsequently ran successfully for state representative for the 5th Hampden district in 2012. In 2020, then-Mayor Alex Morse appointed Vega as Director of the City of Holyoke's Office of Planning and Economic Development, replacing outgoing director Marcos Marrero; Vega assumed the office on January 21, 2021, and would subsequently lead Mayor Josh Garcia's transition team.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Eric Lesser</span> American politician

Eric Philip Lesser is an American lawyer and politician who served in the Massachusetts State Senate. Before representing his hometown of Longmeadow, Massachusetts, and neighboring communities in the Greater-Springfield area, he worked as a White House aide during the Obama administration. Lesser is one of the originators of the White House Passover Seder. In the 2022 Massachusetts race for Lieutenant Governor, Lesser lost the Democratic primary to Kim Driscoll.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">George C. Ewing</span> American politician

George Clinton Ewing was a salesman, wainwright, land agent, superintendent, assessor, selectman, state representative, and most notably one of the chief founders of Holyoke, Massachusetts; he is credited as having first brought the idea of building a dam and industrial city at Hadley Falls to investors in Boston, New York, Hartford, and St. Johnsbury, Vermont in 1846.

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<span class="mw-page-title-main">Bibliography of Holyoke</span>

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<span class="mw-page-title-main">History of the Irish in Holyoke, Massachusetts</span>

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<span class="mw-page-title-main">Massachusetts House of Representatives' 5th Hampden district</span> American legislative district

Massachusetts House of Representatives' 5th Hampden district in the United States is one of 160 legislative districts included in the lower house of the Massachusetts General Court. It covers the city of Holyoke in Hampden County. Democrat Aaron Vega of Holyoke has represented the district since 2013. Candidates for this district seat in the 2020 Massachusetts general election include Patrick Beaudry and Patricia Duffy.


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