Meatless version of the holiday bird said to have its origins in Forest Grove

by: COURTESY PHOTO - Seth Tibbott, inventor of Tofurky, split hundreds of pounds of soy beans in the back of the old Forest Grove food co-op in 1980. Forest Grove has been called the birthplace of Pacific University, Oregon pinot and the nation’s tallest barbershop pole. It’s also, quite possibly, where Tofurky began.

It’s actually hard to pinpoint exactly where and when the famous non-meat entre came to life, but the idea was definitely hatched here in western Washington County.

The tale begins in 1980, when Seth Tibbott’s beard was still dark and Forest Grove was home to a few thousand fewer people.

Tibbott longed for alternative environmentally friendly menu options for vegetarians like himself. His quest led him through two states and the founding of Turtle Island Foods, a company now based in Hood River, poised to sell its 3-millionth Tofurky this year.

That was unimaginable when Tibbott ventured out to Oregon and found a job that “changed my life” — teaching at an outdoor school in Cherry Grove, where he made $25 per week in addition to a place to stay.

“It opened my eyes to the natural world I had been missing all these years,” Tibbott said.

by: COURTESY PHOTO - The Hope Neighborhood Food Co-op sat on 21st Avenue between the current Maggie´s Buns and Pacific University for nearly a decade.  He lived in a barn or a teepee in the surrounding areas during the summers and fell in love with the Pacific Northwest while teaching his students about its rich history and environment. To make money for the outdoor school, he started a business cooking tempeh in the back of a Forest Grove food co-op.

Tibbott became familiar with the fermented Indonesian soy product while working as a naturalist in Tennessee. This source of protein comforted his meat-eating mother, who worried her son would shrivel when he became a vegetarian.

It was a change for a young man who grew up in Maryland and had a small crabbing business with his brother. The pair sold the shellfish for $1 a dozen. After reading “Diet for a Small Planet,” which pointed out inefficiencies in meat animal production, Tibbott knew becoming a vegetarian was the right choice for him.

A lover of holidays, he suffered from the deprivation that comes from being forced to eat only meatless side dishes, and his scarring experience with a solidified gluten roast in 1981 inspired him to create a vegetarian alternative that resembled the taste and texture of turkey.

After years of tampering with a recipe he bought from a friend in Gaston, he finally felt like he got it right — and in 1995 he sold his first 500 Tofurky roasts.

By then, Turtle Island Foods had moved to Hood River and its signature product took off. The company also sells vegetarian sausages, deli slices, jerky and pizzas, but it’s the meat-like taste and texture of vegan Tofurky, made from organic non-genetically engineered soybeans, that’s become a staple for many vegetarian households this time of year.

Today, Tibbott owns a 5,000-square-foot building in Hood River and his company plans to start construction on a new LEED-certified processing plant.

That’s a far cry from where Tibbott started more than 30 years ago, but he remembers the old Creamery Building on 21st Avenue (now occupied by Pacific University), when the paint on the storefront still read Hope Neighborhood Food Co-op. The facility’s signs promoted a lunch menu and a welcome greeting to new members, and bottles and baskets filled its windows.

Old bricks held up the walls and the co-op helped connect the community.

The old Hope food co-op offered individuals the chance to become members for a small fee, which, in true co-op spirit, made each a part owner sharing in the profits. The store sold natural foods, including packaged goods, granola, dairy products, produce, bulk food and honey.

The co-op was more than just a store, though. It was a community meeting place that drew people together and Tibbott saw it as the “heartbeat of Forest Grove,” also drawing people from the neighboring communities of Cornelius, Timber, Gales Creek, Banks and all around the county.

Robert Grott, the general manager of the co-op while Tibbott worked there, recalls when the store provided the “chance for people with like-minded values to get together. We had food there, but it was also about the social mission of serving the community when people were looking to return to simpler, better diets and building communities.”

Today, Pacific University students can be found there on Friday nights attending university concerts and poetry slams, but in 1980, passersby could see the building illuminated by a driven Tibbott cooking in the back.

Tibbott started his business in 1980 with $2,500. He used the Hope Co-op’s kitchen to make 100 pounds of tempeh every night in vats, which he transferred to large incubators he built in the back of the building, coming in around four in the afternoon after the store closed and leaving in the wee hours of the morning. He took his breaks walking around Pacific University’s campus and throwing a Frisbee.

The co-op members let Tibbott stay even after he almost burnt the place down when he left a pot of soybeans on the stove unattended — filling the old building with smoke and beckoning Forest Grove Fire & Rescue.

“It was one of the best run food co-ops I’ve seen,” Tibbott said.

A host to regulars and strangers alike, the co-op held on while Tibbott’s business grew.

Starting out delivering his products to Portland specialty food stores in his Datsun station wagon, distributors became increasingly interested in what Tibbott was cooking up. Soon, running Turtle Island Foods became his full-time job.

Grott, who Tibbott said “took him under his wing,” helped make his increasing sales into a full-blown business.

“His passion was developing this product,” Grott said. “I helped him balance his idealism with the practical end of business, but it’s all his show.”

As Turtle Island Foods grew, so did stores such as Whole Foods and Natures, heightening the demand for Tibbott’s specialty products. But the added competition was hard on the co-op.

Tibbott rented an old school house in Husum, Wash. for 10 years, where his business continued to take off. Wanting to save all the money he could to put into the business, he rented three trees for $25 and for eight years lived in a tree house he built.

Grott left the Hope Co-op in 1984 because it “was time to move on.”

But Tibbott didn’t move on without looking back. Neither did the community members who held the co-op close to their hearts, and put in their sweat and tears to make it work until its close in 1987.

“It was sad for a lot of people when it closed,” said Grott. “We still reminisce about the co-op.”

So does Tibbott.

“I will always gratefully remember the support and business knowledge of the managers at the Hope Co-op,” he said.

This time of year brings Tofurky back into newspaper advertisements and comic strips, and sometimes Turtle Island Foods will even sponsor contests, asking children to draw what a wild Tofurky looks like. It also brings back memories of Forest Grove, the area that directed Tibbott’s life course, and the time he spent in a place where people came together to support him.

After all these years, behind the famous company is a man who still offers his direct line to those interested in talking about his products and who still remembers being a “dirt poor environmentalist,” working in a small rented space with homemade equipment perfecting an alternative diet.

“I never would have gotten Turtle Island Foods off the ground without the people in Forest Grove,” he said. “Forest Grove is still very special to me.”

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