Why caterers are in the black

Only one kind of meal comes with an erratum slip: the catered formal dinner. My slip reads, "Please note: there is no pancetta wrap on the guinea fowl." Fair enough - presumably some religious scruple is involved, although I've forgotten whose beanfeast this is: Jews or the Jewellers' Association? Black-clad servitors are moving efficiently about the lily pond of circular tables, depositing plates at each setting. I was at a funeral of a friend recently where the eulogist recalled that the deceased had once wept at a formal dinner, upon realising his placement. I'm not feeling teary despite being flanked by middle-aged men in business suits because, after all, I'm a middle-aged man in a business suit, too - and I'm as charismatic as Gurdjieff, with the coiled sexual intensity of a rutting rattlesnake.

Besides, the man on my right turns out to be witty and insightful. When I observe - apropos of the entrée being plonked in front of us - that the plated meal is a comparatively recent phenomenon, dating only from the late 1980s, he takes the conversational baton and runs with it: "I know. Twenty-odd years ago, all you ever got at one of these gigs was roast meat of some indeterminate kind, swimming in brown gravy." We're tucking in to our artful salads of French beans, grilled artichoke, black olives, confit tomatoes and soft-boiled quails' eggs. "Nowadays, it's always quails' eggs," says my man. "Which is fine, but I do wonder where they're keeping all these quails. I mean, you never see an item on the news about how battery quails are being kept in unspeakable conditions."

Quail of a time

I resist the temptation to say "true dat" like a character in The Wire, confining myself to the observation that quailing conditions must be even more unspeakable than those of battery chickens, in absolute if not relative terms. Some sort of thumping electronic music has started up - I now notice that there's a podium behind me on a stage flanked by visual display monitors and conclude that this must be some sort of awards dinner. This is confirmed when a man with one of those newscaster faces that has been basted by the regard of the multitude springs on stage and starts handing out small, gilded statuettes of the god Hermes. Jewellers - or Jews? - begin making their way to receive them; however I'm not paying much attention, transfixed as I am by the pat of butter that is positioned on a small square of bluey-grey slate in front of my plate.

I'm lost in reverie. As a child, I visited a slate mine at Blaenau Ffestiniog with my parents. After we'd been rumbled through the dripping caverns, a horny-handed miner demonstrated the divine suitability of the stone for roofing - or butter plates - by taking a chisel and hammer and tapping out thin leaf after leaf from a large block.

I come to and find that my guinea fowl has arrived: a breast stuffed with spinach mousseline and bare of its pancetta wrap lies in a semi-circular pool of jus, beside a weird, rectilinear chunk of compressed potato and two dollops of pre-splodged veg. I'm not in a position to judge how good this food is because I haven't eaten for 24 hours and would probably fall on Turkey Twizzlers, grunting and squealing with delight - all of which is by way of saying: it's bootiful.

Howard's end

I've read all sorts of grisly things about how catered dinners are prepared and I've no doubt that such things do occur. But this event is obviously in another league and I'm not in the mood to be picky. Before my solipsism became pathological, I used to dread events where I had no control over who I talked to, but these days I welcome being forced to be other-centred. I've enjoyed talking to my fellow suits and, when the poached pear arrives, I'm so buoyed up that I cannot forbear from thanking the waitress.

“I bet you don't get thanked that often in your line of work, do you?"
“No," she replies. "We largely get ignored."
“That's why they make you wear black,"
I continue, warming to my reheated theme, "so that you become invisible."
“Possibly," she replies, looking uneasy.
“Beneath contempt, Untermenschen -"
“You're starting to bother me now."

But she needn't worry, because, at that moment, the man on my right plucks up my name card and cries: "You're not Howard Jacobson!" Seconds later, I am being bundled from the hall by security. Ah, well. It was a real dinner - even if I wasn't meant to be attending.

Next week: Madness of Crowds

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 28 March 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Why Libya? Why now?