Friday, December 15, 2006

Corporate Christmas Nightmare, Part II

Today’s departmental Christmas lunch was meant to be more informal than Wednesday’s catering freakfest. So there we sat, we 30, in two rows in the backend of a city-centre Zizzi at midday on the last-Friday-but-one before Christmas. There was never a more efficient way of zapping the individual from a human, not only because we were just one of several departmental cohorts being processed that afternoon but because we were immersed in shopping-centre-décor as bland as surroundings can be. I understood this chain to offer contemporary Italian cuisine, but there was nothing Italian about the scene around me. We could have been in a slightly up-market McDonalds, or a service station, or some euro-restaurant dishing out nightmares to one-off tourists. Moreover, we could have been sitting in practically any eatery in any town centre in the country. All this place said to me was: we are here to take your money.

You just know from the minute you walk into these holes that the food is going to follow suit: overpriced, bland and mass produced. And you can pretty much count on the service being a handful of surly twenty-something, foundation-clad girls working what would appear to be their first shifts as waitresses and hating every minute of it.

We were not let down on any front.

I mean for Fuck’s sake, we had preordered – and paid £21 in cash for -- this set-meal slop four fucking weeks ago. The kitchen knew exactly what each of us was having for our first, second and third courses. Yet when, after an hour of fumbled drinks orders, the first plates started to arrive, the scene was one of a collection of androids whose programs had got out of synch and left them banging into each other and getting impatient with customers for not accepting whatever they did happen to have in their hands. Not that any of it was worth fighting for, mind. I couldn’t even remember what I had ordered, but judging by what was being dropped around me it didn’t make much difference: everything came in the same form of thick toast topped with either caramelized onions, roast cherry tomatoes or some cheap and nasty goat’s cheese, along with some balsamic and olive oil. It was fucking disgusting.

Another hour later the mains started to appear, again as if nobody had thought to look at the booking sheet. By this point, however, my gaze was starting to drift into the middle-distance, anywhere to take me away from the zany tales of drunken antics accrued long after I had left Part I of this horror series on Wednesday. “Ladies’” heels had been snapped clean off, necks bitten ragged, train-stops missed, and all against a backdrop of reciprocated mutterings about the need to take things easy what with the festive sessions on the imminent horizon and the general noise of alcohol-related messages from government, media and marketers.

Regarding the latter, I have seen in the last two days two ads that fail drastically the dipstick test of our society as one which has a healthy approach to food&drink. The first was for Bacardi, sold on the spiny back of the number of calories a Bacardi&coke(diet, obviously) contained (“only 54”, I think) as if it could reasonably be part of a healthy weight-loss plan, and the second an advert for the until-now mythical driving lager: Carling’s “C2”, where the 2 represents the percent alcohol by volume, punted as the ideal “lunchtime pint” as if it was the taste anyone was ever after.

But back to the pizza that was by now before me, looking fairly promising really with its quarter-segment toppings. As I indicated to my drinking buddies left, right and in front of me, I don’t want to ruin anyone’s Christmas by being an arsehole who “just can’t see that there so much more to eating out than the food”. So I muttered a few words about the base being too thick, floury and under-seasoned, the sauce having no discernible taste nor texture and the toppings comprising the most horrible “pepperoni” I had ever attempted to eat, three slimy artichokes, some wrinkly white mushrooms and a strip of Tesco parma ham at the end, and simply left the nastier bits on the plate.

The meal, in any organizational or social sense of the word, had all but disintegrated by the time the deserts started to arrive. But once again, it wasn’t as if people were missing out on much. Our mid-range Christmas deal offered as a choice of two: Tiramisu, of course, and a chocolate cheesecake. And when you see such single-piece chiller jobs on a menu near you, you know those lovely caterer suppliers Brake [formerly Brothers] has got there first. Sure enough, you only had to look at the precision of the cut to know that this thing had been sitting around for a while, without decay. The commercial aftertaste of preservatives and chemical agents is never combated by the higher-than- necessary sugar content, and people in the main seemed to be leaving their lot before their plates were clean.

At this point I dropped my £2 in the tray for the drinks bill – which, mysteriously, appeared efficiently and to the penny – and left. These things are hard without the lube of drink, even when you’ve landed a good place-setting. Everyone unconsciously buys their ticket into the arena, usually in the form of thee or four bottled beers and maybe a brandy with the coffee, and everything’s fine. So as I wandered around filling the rest of what was left of the afternoon while trying to avoid Christmas I found myself with a strong urge to get into an unknown bar and drink myself into unconsciousness on whisky. The season is bearing down hard, and I think one of the main reasons why I can’t seem to look forward to any of it. I can’t even decide what we are going to eat on Christmas day. I just can’t see any of it actually happening without the bottle of bubbly and dozen oysters for breakfast, followed by a good claret-soaked afternoon transferring, perhaps via a ceremonial glass of sherry over a mince pie, to some vintage port and ending, always ending, in the gubbing of tumblers of malt. Sparkling mineral water anyone?

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