I have no problem with the fact that some people don’t like tofu or beans. There are plenty of foods that I don’t like. It bugs me, though, when people make fun of vegetarian dishes just because the ingredients are foreign to them.

When I was growing up in the 1960s in West Orange, NJ, we had a wonderful neighbor, Mrs D’Atrolio, who was a fantastic Italian cook. We ate Italian food at my house, of course—mostly spaghetti and meatballs—but the dishes that came out of Mrs D’Atrolio’s kitchen were well beyond anything my mom knew how to make.

Every once in a while, as suppertime approached, Mrs D’Atrolio would cross the narrow walkway separating our houses and knock on the door. “I thought you’d like to try this” she would say as she handed in a platter of lasagna or stuffed shells or manicotti.

I know it’s hard to believe it now, but at that time, this food was sort of exotic, especially for kids used to pork chops, fried chicken and canned green beans. My mother always explained to us how special and “ethnic” these dishes were and how Mrs D’Atrolio had made them from “scratch.” They were pretty foreign and strange, but even as young kids, my brothers and I knew they were excellent. I don’t think I’ve ever enjoyed any food quite so much as those dishes that arrived, covered with aluminum foil, through the side door.

Maybe that early experience opened my tastes to food that is a little bit different. When I later became a vegetarian, I never had to “acquire a taste” for foods like tofu, tempeh, kale and tahini. I loved them the first time I ate them—and I think that maybe that’s because I had the expectation that “strange” food could be good.

When I hear people snickering at tofu or veggie burgers, I think immediately of Mrs D’Atrolio and those luscious plates of manicotti. I’m grateful for her spirit of generosity and my mom’s spirit of culinary open-mindedness that taught me that weird and foreign is sometimes just plain delicious.