Group dinner, or, an embarrassment to Americans

Traveling while vegetarian can be an adventure to say the least, which is why, when we returned to the Brisbane hostel after a 10-day excursion, the three veggie girls on our study abroad trip decided to plan a welcome back feast. After extensive discussion, we decided on a meal of camembert with toast and honey, steamed vegetables, halluomi, edamame, and the grand main course, roast pumpkin.

Over the past weeks, we had been served a variety of pumpkin meals: boiled pumpkin, pumpkin soup, chopped pumpkin salads, pumpkin stew, but roast pumpkin was the best of them all.

The pumpkins in Australia are not the leering orange jack-o-lantern type we’re used to in America—these are different, more subtle pumpkins, clothed in a refined greenish-grey skin. Their true colors show on the inside, though, where the flesh is vibrantly orange.


Australian pumpkins. Photo credit: Jem Wilson, ABC Central Victoria

The preparations for our feast started off swimmingly. We purchased half of a pumpkin at Cole’s, the local grocery store, as well as some cheap olive oil (not even extra virgin). We sliced, sawed, and hacked the poor pumpkin into crescent-shaped slivers and slathered them with oil, then sprinkled them with salt and pepper. Eileen looked for a baking tray, and found one inside the oven. When she grabbed it, however, it wouldn’t budge.

“Hmm, this is weird,” Eileen said. “I guess the baking tray doesn’t come out of the oven.”

After a little tugging, she finally came back with the baking tray, attached to a weird wire framework that did not look like anything I had ever seen inside an oven.

A French guy at the counter across from us glanced over as he drizzled beet juice over his salad, holding the can just a little higher than normal, as if to remind us that he had been trained at a prestigious culinary institution. The deep red juice pooled in the little pile of lettuce as French Guy delicately poured a trickle onto the edge of the plate for an artistic effect. 10 of 10 for presentation, but I’m not sure beet juice would win the hearts and palettes of discerning food critics.

With our pumpkin slices artfully arranged on the tray, we set ourselves to the task of figuring out the oven. Instead of the usual temperature dials and settings, there were a series of buttons marked with cryptic symbols. One was obviously a thermometer, which was straightforward enough, but next to the thermometer button was another marked by a circle made of little arrows, which seemed to signify some sort of spinning motion.

“This is probably a rotisserie oven,” I remarked naively.


Australian oven controls?

Since none of the buttons made much sense, we decided that the best approach was to press all of them and wait to see what happened. It was at this stage, with all three of us crouching around the open oven, that Gourmet French Guy dropped in to give us some constructive criticism. He glanced up from his salad, which he was now anointing with expensive olive oil (probably extra virgin), and ambled over to our oven, when he dropped the bomb.

“That is a dishwasher,” he said with a straight face, before breaking into peals of laughter.

If you have never been caught crouching around a dishwasher in a hostel kitchen in a foreign county trying to roast three pounds of pumpkin, you will not understand the depth of the embarrassment we felt.

“Girls, can you pose for a picture with the food in the dishwasher?” asked Gourmet French Guy, still laughing.


Our pumpkin sitting atop the oven imposter

Blushing, we half-posed, laughing partly out of sheer embarrassment, partly at the hilarity of the situation. As we began to shamefully retrieve the pumpkin from the dishwasher, I saw Gourmet French Guy gleefully leaning across the counter to spread the story of our mistake to the other people in the kitchen.

Soon, we had drawn a small crowd. An elderly Japanese man peered into the dishwasher, a woman in floral pants looked over, laughing, and an Australian boy offered some comfort: “It’s okay, I didn’t know it was a dishwasher either.”

Gourmet French Guy eventually finished his salad after a liberal application of small tomatoes and julienned carrots, and we worked out the best way to prepare our pumpkin—microwaved for five minutes, then sautéed in a pan on low heat. But for the rest of the evening we were the laughingstock of the kitchen, and multiple people checked up on the progress of our pumpkin, smirking.

So if I learn nothing else from my study abroad, the difference between ovens and industrial dishwashers has been permanently seared into my brain. And if I end up in a meme spread across the French Internet, you’ll know why.


The final meal, featuring sauteed pumpkin

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