“Are you sure this isn’t meat?” I said, picking up a piece of pasta with Bolognese sauce dripping down the side.
My mom exclaimed that she disguised soy crumble as meat by searing it with a variety of smoky spices that only a talented vegetarian could pull off.
I carefully put the fork in my mouth and bit into it slowly, anticipating the worst, but was in for a pleasant surprise. I couldn’t tell if what I was eating was meat or soy, the texture was too similar to tell them apart.
In my eyes, my mother is a vegetarian idol. Although she is a traditional Italian and most Italian cuisine is based on meat, she has always incorporated vegetarianism into her cooking since watching an episode of the college horror docuseries Faces of Death in which when it came to slaughterhouses and decided to swear by meat.
While my mother lived through both pregnancies as a vegetarian, she never forced her lifestyle on my brother or me as children and allowed us to make our own dietary choices.
When I expressed my interest in becoming a vegetarian in eighth grade after watching Cowspiracy, a documentary about factory farming and meat overeating, she was overjoyed. My mother made sure I was provided with the necessary nutritional supplements I needed for my trip. Overnight, my vanity became a sea of colorful vitamin bottles, each sporting a different label. Many vegetarians eat vitamins like B-12 or iron — common vitamins found in meat — because deficiencies in either can cause anemia.
Although my vegetarian “tool belt” was full of vitamin supplements and a passion against factory farming, I was only 13 when I started going vegetarian. I ate school lunches, but the vegetarian ones like vegetable soup or a side salad were neither filling nor appetizing. So I wanted to learn how to cook my own vegetarian meals so I could have a filling meal at school.
For eight years I watched my mother cook vegetarian food, now it was time to try it myself.
The extra firm tofu made an awkward sound as it plopped onto the cutting board. It lay there like a tiny beige sponge and smelled of nothing – completely unappetizing.
I read the cooking instructions on the back of the tofu package and analyzed the small graphic depicting a hand pressing down firmly on the tofu, draining excess water. I gave each side a firm press with a paper towel. Water poured out leaving my hands soaked. I chopped the brick in half, wrinkled my nose at how disgusting this meal would be, and wished my mom would make it instead.
I realized how awful my food looked. The tofu was mushy and ran over the other ingredients, so I ended up with a tofu and veggie soup — which was very similar to a tofu and veggie soup I would see my friend feeding her pet rabbit — instead of the fried tofu and veggies that I prepared.
As I sat at the table, I looked down at my food in disappointment and thought: That’s why people make fun of vegetarians.
My mother noticed the poorly prepared food in front of me.
“I’m about to make dinner, would you like me to make you a plate?” she asked.
She started making one of my favorite vegetarian dishes, a fresh salad with the rest of my sad, mushy block of tofu, which she magically perfected by deep-frying until golden brown.
The more time I spent watching my mom prepare myriad dishes like veggie lasagna, baked ziti, and caprese salad, the more confident I became in the kitchen. By the time I got into high school, I got more creative with cooking.
During the holidays, we participated in a competitive potluck at my high school’s animal rights club. In junior year, I stepped into my buffalo-style tofu “wings.” After voting, my Tofu Wings were declared the winner.
Without my mother’s constant patience, guidance, and support, I would never have been able to turn a piece of tofu into something that looks a lot like a boneless buffalo wing. Now, at 20, my tofu is expertly made, and tofu “wings” are my specialty, crispy on the outside and tender on the inside, full of flavor.
Now, when people ask about my signature tofu wings, I can tell them I made them myself and pass along the recipe in hopes it will inspire their own vegetarian journey.
Learning how to creatively transform vegetarian dishes has helped me not only make tofu my favorite food, but confidently embrace my lifestyle.