By Gabe Friedman
David Mintz, who invented the once-popular Tofutti dairy substitute out of a desire to cater to observant Jews who could not mix meat and milk, has died.
His death at 89 on Feb. 24 was first reported by COLlive, an Orthodox news site that covers the Chabad-Lubavitch community. Mintz had a relationship with Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the famed leader of the Chasidic movement, and sought his advice before opening his businesses, the site reported.
No cause of death was given.
Mintz was born and raised in an Orthodox section of Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and attended Orthodox schools. Grub Street, New York Magazine’s food blog, wrote that he sold mink stoles before opening prepared food stores, where he employed “Jewish grandmothers” who made Jewish comfort foods like knishes and rugelach.
Although he eventually left the haredi Orthodox fold, Mintz saw a wide-open market through his Orthodox customers who under kosher law were prevented from eating dairy during a meal that involved meat. He reportedly first bought a gallon of tofu from a vendor in Chinatown in 1972 and went on to meld the soy-based food into “tofu-filled cookies, cakes, rugelach, tuna casserole” and more, as described in a 1981 New York Times article.
But it took him several years to perfect what would become Tofutti ice cream, his most popular and enduring creation that became a staple in grocery stores across the country — and on Shabbat tables after chicken dinners.
“Everyone said it would never taste good,” Mintz told The Times, which described him as a restless and enthusiastic personality. “Those people are now my biggest fans.”
COLlive reported that Mintz went to Schneerson for reassurance during his years of experimentation, and that he gave generously to Jewish causes, including those connected to Schneerson’s Chabad movement. He also reportedly regularly visited Schneerson’s gravesite, a pilgrimage site for Chabad followers.
“Whenever I met with the Rebbe I would mention what I was doing, and he would say to me, ‘You have to have faith. If you have faith in God, you can do wonders.’ So I kept trying,” Mintz said, according to the site.
Among the flavors and products Mintz tried over the years were several with Jewish influences: A carrot-apple-raisin tofu ice cream, for example, offered some of the flavors of a traditional Rosh Hashanah tsimmes, while blintzes stuffed with his tofu ricotta turned an archetypal dairy dish into something that could be served at any kosher meal.