i heard recently that new zealand has the lowest proportion of vegetarians of any western country.  (and although i can't validate this statistic at the moment, i'm going to pass it on to you, because when did spreading wild unsubstantiated rumors ever get anyone in trouble?  of course giant squid get to 60' total length and can eat sperm whales!)

i didn't think too much about this stat at the time i heard it, apart from a kind of vague 'huh, that's interesting.'  i think i made a few tenuous mental connections, since my sister bumbly is vegetarian and lives in new zealand.  it also reminded me of my first experience living in nz, where i flatted with an assortment of kiwi guys from around the country.  that was my first experience with cooking for others on a regular basis, since we were each in charge of dinner one night a week, and i think it's safe to say that every night was an adventure.  i often made fresh salad with my dinners because i had grown up with it, and it unfailingly received suspicious proddings, tentative tastes and then surprised appreciation, because apparently fresh vegetables just were not on the mid-20s-kiwi-male radar as food.  in turn, they introduced me to many novel dishes designed to maximize carb input while minimizing time wasted consuming (two of the guys were runners and the third was majoring in outdoor education), like spaghetti on pizza, or pretty much any normal food (including pizza, ice cream, and sandwiches) made into a(n extra) sandwich.  one of the flatmates also seemed to be on a personal quest to see how many ways you could combine pasta and hamburger/mince (and on special occasions, sour cream and mushrooms) into a 'different' meal. 

but i digress.

on saturday night, four of us (including bumbly) went out to dinner in ohakune, a small town in the south central north island where we were staying in the hopes of being able to ski one day this weekend.  (gale force winds and ceaseless downpour mandated that we stay inside and play all possible permutations of settlers instead.)  bumbly had a pizza craving, and i wanted a burger, and i think the guys were willing to go along with whatever, especially by the time we had checked the menus of about 15 different places in two different parts of town, been told in several otherwise promising places that there was a 30-45 minute wait, and gotten drenched in between by the gale-force downpour.  we ended up returning to a small alpine-themed restaurant whose menu we had checked earlier and ruled out because it had neither pizza nor burgers.  so it goes.  there were not many people inside, it was warm and dry with a nice fire, and cozy and quiet, and we all found things we were willing to eat.

then our server arrived. 

she had a rich accent from somewhere unplaceable (but definitely not alpine – later questioning revealed it as indonesian).  when queried on the soup of the day, she replied, 'ees, eh, bumpkin.'  she also extolled the virtues of the daily vegetable, 'rrrrrrrroast potatoes,'  and made many game attempts (about 10) to pronounce the guys' beer of choice, gösser.  regardless of language barrier though, we assumed that she (as employed waitstaff) would be conveying our orders to the kitchen with some semblance of accuracy.

well, we got our first warning when bumbly ordered the only vegetarian option on the menu, helpfully called 'vegetarian pasta.'  our server smiled obligingly, wrote it down, and asked if bumbly wanted ham on top.  bumbly blinked, and said carefully, 'no, the vegetarian pasta.  i'm a vegetarian.  i don't eat meat.' 

'sorrrrrrry?' the server asked, looking genuinely startled.  'wheesh pasta?'

bumbly pointed to the vegetarian one, and said 'the VEGETARIAN pasta.'

'ahhhh, ok,' said the server, still looking confused but obliging.

the rest of us ordered various meaty things without incident, with sides of rrrrrrroast potatoes and the other vegetable option, steamed vegetables, allegedly comprised of carrots, broccoli, and bumpkin.  the pebbles ordered fries instead of potatoes.

about ten minutes later, the server came out, looking apologetic.

'i sorry,' she said, 'i get de potatoes wrong.  today ees scalloped potatoes.  ees ok?'

yes, we all nodded, fine.  whatever.

another ten minutes later, the meals arrived, and they looked good.  the roast pork with 'cajan' spices was nicely spicy, and bumbly's pasta appeared to be full of sundried tomatoey goodness.  as the plates were set down, however, the server gasped and said 'oh – de potatoes!  i forget!'  and indeed, in place of rrrrrroast or even scalloped potatoes… we all had fries.  oh well.  potato is potato, i guess.

as we were beginning to tuck in, the steamed vegetables arrived – carrot, broccoli, but no bumpkin – BUT the broccoli came wrapped in a strip of limp, pink bacon that appeared to have been steamed and then actually knotted around the stem, an interesting touch.  luckily bumbly was not waiting on steamed vegetables.  instead, she was picking through her pasta with the odd, quavery expression that means she thinks (usually correctly) that she has found meat in her food. 

'i think there's bacon in it,' she said, and produced a very bacon-like substance for me to try.  i wasn't sure; at first the taste and consistency were like a grilled cheese crust, but if so it was very bacony cheese.  in succession, everyone else at the table weighed in their opinions (one said bacon and one was with me on the bacon/cheese fence), but i was pretty sure the vegetarian would know what meat tasted like if (when) it cropped up in her dinner, so i went to the kitchen and spoke to the cook.  he assured me (with what appeared to be much higher recognition of the word 'vegetarian') that indeed, there was absolutely no meat in it, only mushrooms, tomatoes and cheese.  so i apologized and took word back to the table, where bumbly looked dubious, the other cheese/bacon proponent tried it again and proclaimed 'cheese,'  and most of the rest of the meal passed without incident, except that bumbly pretty much just picked at the pasta, and i don't blame her.

the final feather in the cap of the alpine cafe, though, came when bumbly asked for a takeaway box for her pasta (which someone else was planning to eat leftover).  this received another blank stare from the server, until we tried the phrase 'doggie bag.'  (we were half expecting her to ask if bumbly wanted a bacon-lined box.)  she disappeared into the kitchen and returned with… a plastic bowl and a piece of plastic wrap.  these she produced with a flourish, looking triumphant.  we did manage to keep straight faces as bumbly dished her bacon-cheesy pasta into the small bowl and tucked it in gently (perhaps they wanted to make sure it stayed dry outside), and as we paid, but then it was too much and we bolted for the door as one, and barreled howling into the night.

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